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Marlo Thomas


The Fire Behind the Throne: Those Dynamo Wives of World Leaders

Posted: 08/03/2012 8:22 am

This was not Lady Diana. Or Grace Kelly. Or even Imelda Marcos. Unlike all of them, she was a mystery -- no photos of her, no news items planted in gossip columns, and certainly no Facebook page.

And then suddenly, almost overnight, Ri Sol-ju became a household name -- in North Korea.

Unlike the attention western countries heap on the wives -- or even the wives-to-be -- of world leaders, in countries like the communist nation of North Korea, announcements of high-profile betrothals are made with less fanfare. Indeed, the revelation last month that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un had taken a bride was a carefully, if not subtly, orchestrated affair. One day he was single, the next he was presiding over a visit to an amusement park, with a pretty and snappily dressed life partner by his side -- a far cry from the breathless, minute-by minute coverage that accompanied the extravaganza of Prince William and Kate Middleton's knot-tying.

Only time will tell if the surprise Korean nuptials were merely a marriage of convenience -- a state-planned partnership designed to guarantee the extension of the Kim dynasty -- or truly a love match. But the fact remains that being the spouse of a world leader is a complicated job. While, naturally, the wives are accorded all the same luxurious trappings that their husbands enjoy, they also live under the same scrutiny, and often grab the spotlight unwittingly.

For example, when President Ferdinand Marcos fled the Philippines in 1986 in the wake of a revolution, he left his nation rife with corruption and driven into debt. But what the media chose to seize upon instead was what authorities had found inside the personal closet of Marcos' wife, Imelda: 2,700 pairs of shoes. Overnight, comedians everywhere had a new joke to tell.

Some spouses of world leaders shrug off public scrutiny and continue to follow their own path -- and remain proud of it. Carla Bruni was a former model, singer and songwriter when she married French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008; and after the ceremony, she left none of that glam behind -- smiling for paparazzi, recording a new album and singing at Radio City Music Hall to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday. And though British Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie, was a model of political -- and parenting -- decorum during her husband's decade-long reign at 10 Downing Street, she still kept her own voice, speaking out on behalf of women who chose to breastfeed in public -- something she herself practiced -- and against corporate boards that didn't include women.

And, of course, there were the unprecedented ascensions of Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco and Queen Noor of Jordan -- one a stunning Philadelphia girl who'd left Hollywood stardom for a European throne; and the other, perhaps the only Middle Eastern royalty in history who was born a Lebanese-American in a town called Washington D.C. Those were two for the record books.

So whose pair of shoes (minus the 2,699 others) will Korea's Ri Sol-ju step into as she takes her place in history? We'll have to wait and see. But for the meantime, let's look back at those other women (and, in a few cases, men) who were sometimes the power -- if not the spark -- behind the throne. Enjoy!

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  • Ri Sol-ju

    The mysterious wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was recently identified by South Korean intelligence officials. It is reported that Ri is from a politically connected family and was a singer in the Unhasu Orchestra. Standing by Kim Jong-un's side, she is a rare sight among the male-dominated presence of North Korea's leadership.

  • Grace Kelly

    From Hollywood sweetheart to royal darling, Grace Kelly started her acting career at age 20. But after six years of starring in more than forty episodes of live television drama and winning both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, Grace took leave from the silver screen to enter upon her duties as the Princess of Monaco. Grace married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco in 1956 and took her place next to his side as Her Serene Highness. Here, she is pictured beside one of her favorite dress designers, Oleg Cassini. <em>Photo courtesy of Flickr User: <a href="">William Arthur Fine Stationary</em>

  • Princess Diana

    Known as the people's princess, Lady Diana was an influential role model of kindness, mother of princes William and Harry, was inevitably one of the most-beloved first wives. She married Charles, Prince of Wales in 1981 and quickly blossomed into the outgoing and caring Princess of Wales who became known for her charity work that touched the lives and hearts of people all over the world. Her untimely death in 1997 shocked the world into a state of grief that would last long after she was gone.

  • Imelda Marcos

    Known for her excessive shoe collection and lavish lifestyle, Imelda Marcos was married to the late Ferdinand Marcos, the 10th President of the Philippines. Imelda was often referred to as the "Steel Butterfly" and is said to been covertly calling the shots when her husband fell sick with lupus in the 1980s.

  • Michelle Obama

    It wouldn't be "Obama Nation" without the president's brilliant and beautiful First Lady, Michelle Obama. A role model as a caring mother and supportive wife, a whip-smart advocate of Administration policies, and a woman who knows how to look great without spending a fortune, Michelle won admiration early on in her husband's presidency by planting a White House garden and raising awareness about childhood obesity. And through it all, she has remained poised and graceful, with a sense of humor to boot. Here, she gives her husband the "Fist Bump of Hope" after Barack Obama won the Democratic presidential nominee in June of 2008.

  • Prince Philip

    A royal power couple if there ever was one, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip hardly come in under the radar. But if anyone in the relationship holds the reigns, it's the Queen. Not only was it the Queen that made him a Prince of the United Kingdom in 1957, but for the past six decades he's played second fiddle to his royal wife.

  • Carla Bruni

    The glamorous Carla Bruni is much more than the wife of the former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Carla is a singer and former model who has worked for a laundry list of luxury labels and accompanies her husband on state visits. Scandal struck in 2008, when Christie's auction house sold a nude photo of Carla from her modeling days. These days, Carla is focused on projecting a dignified image as an active participant in various charitable causes, including AIDS research, animal rights and finding homes for children who were orphaned in the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

  • Raisa Gorbachev

    The wives of Soviet leaders had long stood in the shadows of their prominent husbands, but Raisa Gorbachev was different. She made many public appearances by Mikhail's side, giving the Soviet Union a warmer image. Her charitable contributions and dynamic personality were recognized worldwide. But Raisa wasn't just kind-hearted - she was also smart. In an American TV interview, Mikhail revealed that his wife played a large role in many of his decision-making processes.

  • Cherie Blair

    The charismatic wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has never been afraid to speak her mind. In the past, she has supported breastfeeding in public, something which she herself regularly practiced. Recently, Cherie set the media into motion by stating that mothers who work outside of the home set a better example for their children than stay-at-home mothers.

  • Joachim Sauer

    Throughout history, it's often been the German women who have remained the ones behind the men in power, but that was until Angela Merkel turned the tables on German politics. When Angela became the first female Chancellor of Germany, her husband Joachim Sauer became the first man behind the woman in power. Known to prefer the shadows rather than the spotlight of the public's eye, Joachim likes to keep a low profile while standing by his wife's side.

  • Margaret Trudeau

    Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was initially attracted to Margaret because of her free spirit, but her wild girl ways soon led to tension after they tied the knot. Margaret was often spotted dancing the night away at Studio 54 in revealing clothing and smuggled drugs in her husband's luggage. The marriage steadily declined, as Pierre's political duties left Margaret feeling neglected. After Margaret was involved in a series of rumored affairs with Ted Kennedy, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and others, the couple called their 13-year marriage quits.

  • Queen Noor

    Born an American citizen of Syrian, English and Swedish descent, Lisa Najeeb Halaby was crowned Queen Noor of Jordan in 1978 when she married King Hussein of Jordan. Although Queen Noor wasn't initially accepted by the people of Jordan, since she wasn't of Arab Muslim birth, she soon won the hearts of the Jordanian people.


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