08/03/2012 08:31 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

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

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!

Presidential Spouses