After securing a quiet nook in the lounge of a plush Tokyo hotel-cum-meeting-place, Madame Dewi spreads out a portfolio of personal photographs on the coffee table before her.
There she is with the Gorbachevs. With actor Omar Sharif. Yachting with the Kennedys. In one photo, she smiles brilliantly between her late husband, Indonesian President Sukarno, and legendary Chinese communist Zhou Enlai. In another, she poses at a royal palace with Cambodia’s King Sihanouk.
Like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or perhaps Imelda Marcos, Ratna Sari Dewi Sukarno is one of those rare people whose lives are, well, larger than life. She knows everyone. She’s been everywhere.
And — to the chagrin of many — she loves to talk about it.
“I speak too directly,” she said, her modest tone balanced against pearls the size of gum balls that adorn her ears and ring finger and a glittering golden butterfly that is pinned to the lapel of her red Hanae Mori suit. “I can’t speak diplomatically. I think people are afraid of what I am going to say.”
Even so, back in her native Japan after 40 years abroad, Dewi has settled down into what may be her highest profile role yet — as an outspoken, and often feared, social critic and television celebrity.
In March, she will be hosting a concert for promising young musicians at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and in May she will be publishing her seventh book, “Invitation to the Society.”
In a country where directly criticizing others in public is frowned upon, Dewi is an unusually frank figure.
She dedicated whole chapters of her book, “Allow Me to Say a Few Things,” published in 2000, to celebrities she deemed deserving of scathing critiques. The tabloids and TV gossip shows loved it. She soon had a sequel out and, always ready to slam dunk a well-known entertainer, she became a darling of the talk show circuit.
“I left Japan when I was 19, so my mentality was still a very classic Japanese mentality. When I came back to Japan I was so angry,” she said. “The Japanese morality, education, the way children think — it all made me so angry.
“I think millions of Japanese shared my views, but they were too afraid to speak out.”
But Dewi’s appeal is more than just her sharp tongue — it is equally the mystique of her life itself.
Dewi, which is short for “Essence of the Jewel” — her maiden name is Naoko Nemoto — wasn’t born into high society.
Though she was raised in the poverty of postwar Japan, she was living the lavish lifestyle of Indonesia’s first lady by the time she was 20. She won the heart of the 57-year-old Sukarno when he was passing through Japan in 1959 — she said they met at a tea party — and she became his third wife just months later.
But before long, her husband was fighting off a revolt.
“From 1966 to 1969, over 1 million people were killed, all Sukarno followers,” she said. “In those days, I was sleeping in my trousers every night and I counted how long it would take me to jump out of the window in the palace and run across the garden and climb the fence to escape.”
Sukarno was overthrown in 1967, and died three years later.
Dewi meanwhile became an exile in Paris, where she soon emerged as the toast of the international jet set.
“Parisian society loves exotic figures,” she said. “I was young, beautiful, I had a name, a certain wealth. People were so eager to invite me here and there.”
One highlight, she happily recalled, was a ball thrown by a Bolivian tin magnate at his chateau in Portugal at which guests were greeted by two elaborately decorated elephants. A red carpet to the entrance was lined by black men wearing turbans and dressed like Persian genies.
“Back then, people would spend a million dollars a night on parties,” she said. “But the whole world has changed. You cannot show off your wealth like that anymore.”
So, with the balls and high life becoming tiresome, Dewi switched her attentions to raising her daughter, and then on becoming a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist.
She went back to Jakarta only to find her old palace had been confiscated — it’s now a museum. So she found another place, put her daughter in an Indonesian school and worked as an agent representing major international corporations.
“It was very difficult to work there, because I had to deal with many of the government officials who used to work for us,” she said. “The first lesson of business was to swallow my pride.”
After 10 years, confident that her daughter had acquired an identity as an Indonesian, she moved to New York, where, among other things, she worked with the United Nations Environmental Program and became the chairwoman of the Ibla Foundation, which helps promote young classical musicians and vocalists.
Increasingly, she was sought out by the Japanese media for interviews.
“There were so many that I was going back and forth between the two countries, and I finally decided to move back to Japan,” she said.
She admits there have been some odd moments in the three years since.
Last year, she was embroiled in a highly publicized skirmish with tax authorities over 130 million yen in income they claimed she failed to report.
In July, she flew to Jakarta to testify at the trial of a local magazine editor charged with assaulting her. The trial was part of an ongoing battle between the two — he had been convicted of publishing racy photos of her in 1998.
Meanwhile, her career as a celebrity continues to whiz ever onward.
She’s been filmed wrapped in a towel to critique hot springs resorts, and featured on a panel of celebrity “referees” who watched troubled couples trade verbal attacks in a mock boxing ring on one particularly bizarre — and short-lived — TV program.
She’s even done commercials for cockroach spray.
“If you want to buy that kind of exposure on television, it would cost you $150,000 for a few seconds,” she said, admitting she is a bit worried about her public image.
“But in a global way, I think it’s a good idea to get the exposure. Fame makes it easier to raise money for charity. Plus, I have seven staff to support.”
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