Will a sex scandal destroy Gordon Ramsay's empire?
From family photographs in magazines, to scenes of domestic bliss in his TV shows – Gordon Ramsay knows how to sell the image of a happy home. So whether true or not, allegations of an affair could threaten more than his marriage.
Gordon Ramsay woke up on Saturday morning to a whirlwind of new material from his publicity machine, an operation every bit as slick as the global gastronomic empire over which he presides.
There he was in The Times magazine, his wife and children clustered around him – "the Ramsay Clan" – for a celebration of how the Italians have "made the family meal such an art form".
In a parallel piece in that morning's Daily Telegraph, the chef held forth on his apparently flawless home life, describing his joy at taking the kids to football in the park and to swimming lessons, and tucking into roast dinner cooked by his wife, Tana, with whom he was photographed, the pair happily holding aloft their glasses of fizz.
Everything seemed just so, and such wonderful "profile" ahead of the festive season, what with Gordon presenting his new live exhibition Taste of Christmas in association with Channel 4 at London's giant ExCel centre next month, and having a new book in the shops, Cooking For Friends. Yet by the following day the irony of the Telegraph headline "My Perfect Weekend" was all too horribly apparent.
A posse of paparazzi had pitched up outside that same south London home, and the couple felt obliged to demonstrate the unity of their relationship by posing at the front gate in a shot that recalled a similarly cornered David Mellor and his wife, when the former Tory minister was caught philandering.
The reason for the Ramsay show of solidarity was the News of the World's front-page claim on Sunday that the famously foul-mouthed chef had been having an affair, or "He's an F-ing cheat" as the paper headlined it.
The article, apparently an old-school kiss-and-tell (though strangely lacking in detail), was justified with allegations of Ramsay's hypocrisy, quoting previous pronouncements on marital fidelity ("Tana is my wife, my lover and the person I want in my bed and in my arms every night") and noting that the 42-year-old cook has been crowned Celebrity Father of the Year and regularly allowed his four children to be filmed and photographed with him. He had "become a multi-millionaire promoting 'Brand Ramsay'" based on a "carefully constructed family man image", said the paper.
So how much will these allegations damage "Brand Ramsay"? Certainly, he has much to lose, with his personal wealth believed to be some way north of £60m. Alongside Jamie Oliver, he is among the most high-profile of Britain's "media chefs" and has a four-year deal worth £5m with Channel 4, for whom he makes such well-known shows as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and The F-Word. He also enjoys fame in America, where the Fox network screens Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, highlighting the chef's persona as a hard-but-fair culinary troubleshooter.
It is only 10 years since Ramsay opened his first restaurant, with the help of Tana's father, Chris Hutcheson, who has become the chef's business partner – owning 69 per cent of Gordon Ramsay Holdings, the vehicle they have used to take the Scotsman's name around the world. The Ramsay business is based in London where, aside from his eponymous eaterie, he owns such famed establishments as Petrus, Boxwood Café and Maze. But the empire extends to New York, Los Angeles and Florida, Prague, Paris, Tokyo and Dubai.
Veterans in analysing the potential impact of a kiss-and-tell were yesterday poring over the aftershock of this one. James Herring, one of the television industry's leading publicists, said that Brand Ramsay would survive intact if the marriage held. "It's all going to come down to whether the media can drive a wedge between him and his wife. As long as they're grinning through photo opportunities and presenting a united front then it's business as usual."
In the longer term, the chef might even benefit from the sordid tale. "In the Noughties, people like celebrities to be as real life and near the knuckle as he is. People like warts and all, with living and breathing relationship problems and medical issues and all the other things people have at home."
Ramsay, who was once a footballer on the books of Glasgow Rangers, is a friend of David Beckham, who, Herring says, emerged undamaged from similar revelations about an affair in 2004. "It made the Beckhams seem more fallible and more real. It did Brand Beckham a world of good."
The survival of Ramsays' marriage is critical to the future of everything else, given Hutcheson's central role in the business. Seasoned observers believe that the couple might have to stand a further buffeting next weekend. The News of the World's revelations contained a comment from Sarah Symonds (the woman claimed by the paper to have had an affair with Ramsay), the presence of which was more telling than the words expressed. "Sorry, I've got nothing to say on the matter," said Symonds, who did not apparently relate the matter to her alleged paramour.
Ramsay was thus not able to seek, through his lawyers, an injunction preventing publication – a course of events that the paper also sought to avoid by producing a "spoof" front page splash on its first edition. The likelihood that Symonds is in cahoots with the paper makes it probable that further stories will follow on Sunday about a relationship which the paper claims spanned seven years.
The chef's well-connected publicist, Gary Farrow, has so far fought a rearguard action on the story and, with the exception of the Daily Mail, the daily tabloids have been cautious in following it up.
But Phil Hall, a former editor of the News of the World and now a PR, expressed the view that Sunday's exposé was justified because the chef had "been saying what a great family man he is and using it as part of Brand Ramsay" and said that the paper had refrained from publishing the level of detail common to many kiss-and-tell stories in the past. "It may have been that they didn't run stuff because they were scared of some of the privacy issues."
This has been a difficult year for the Sunday red tops as their ability to report on illicit relationships, for so long their meat and drink, has been inhibited by a succession of rulings in the courts. For Colin Myler, the editor of the News of the World, this process reached a low in July when Mr Justice Eady ruled in favour of the Formula One boss Max Mosley, who had been denounced by the paper for his sexual activities. The decision cost the News of the World heavily and The Times claimed it meant the judge had "effectively barred press coverage of sexual behaviour".
The Ramsay story has shown that not to be the case, but the News of the World might be treading carefully. No complaint has yet been lodged by the Ramsays with the Press Complaints Commission, but the watchdog has previously ruled against the Sunday tabloid for being overly salacious in its coverage of such stories.
The Ramsays will continue to tough it out. Tana Ramsay, beyond the personal hurt of allegations of her husband's marital infidelity, will be conscious of her own public image. For Mrs Ramsay, the F-word is definitely "family". The chef's wife of 12 years is the author of three cookery books of her own, with titles that hint at domestic bliss, such as Home Made and Family Kitchen. We must wait until Sunday to discover whether Symonds has the means to further undermine the Ramsay marriage.
The PR Max Clifford has had dealings with Symonds, who came to him earlier this year looking to build a career as a professional mistress, after writing a book, Having an Affair? A Handbook for the Other Woman, which had secured her a slot on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Symonds wanted Clifford to take her fame to a new level. "There was never any mention of Gordon Ramsay when she came to me in March," says the PR man, who was called half a dozen times before Symonds realised she was unable to raise the money to secure his services.
Being no stranger to the art of kiss-and-tell, Clifford is convinced that Symonds co-operated with the paper. "My opinion is that there's no way they would have done this without her knowledge. If she says it's all lies and he says the same, then they are sued for a vast amount of money."
One might think a liaison with such a woman would throw into the question the judgement of a man who considers himself to be a shrewd business operator.
But Clifford does not believe Ramsay's career is in trouble. It was Clifford who brokered the 2004 kiss-and-tell in which Rebecca Loos sold the story of her affair with Beckham to the News of the World.
"Did it cause David Beckham any problems?" he asks. "None at all."
After the revelations about Britain's richest chef, "there will be a lot of people who will tut, but will it stop them going to his restaurants? No. Will it stop them buying his books? Absolutely not." He believes Ramsay's image is largely protected from such scandal because he is already seen as "foul-mouthed, a bit outrageous, successful".
When Ramsay published his autobiography in 2006 he chose the title Humble Pie, attempting to put to one side the brashness familiar to his audience and to reveal his "real story". He wrote of his "difficult childhood" on a council estate in Warwickshire with a womanising father, and of his brother's heroin addiction and his "failed first career" as a footballer. "All of these things have made him the celebrated culinary talent and media powerhouse that he is today," said the confessional blurb.
To be fully rehabilitated, Ramsay may need to break his current silence on the allegations. James Herring says the British public will respect him if he speaks out honestly. Phil Hall suggests he should apologise to his family who are, of course, the real victims in the story.
Gordon Ramsay has made his name partly by troubleshooting the problems of others. But he might benefit from some more 'fessing up of his own.
Before the storm: The Ramsays' relationship sound bites
Gordon on Tana
Tana and I have been together for a long time and we've fought the fight. We've gone through the hardship, renting flats, being skint, and we've gone through IVF.
The secret behind the relationship is that we didn't overindulge in each other's company; for the first eight years of our relationship we only had one night a week together.
I make sure I get her lots of treats! That's a big thing, but I also leave her notes in her wardrobe saying how much I miss her as I'm away a lot at the moment.
Tana grounds me, big time. Between her and my mum, they are definitely the reason that I'm sane.
Sunday night is mine and Tana's precious night. We'll start with a gin and tonic and put a bottle of Ruinart champagne to chill in the ice machine. For dessert we just take the champagne upstairs to bed. I don't like the children to come in in the morning and see a bottle of champagne next to the bed – so we roll it underneath.
Tana on Gordon
Every January, Gordon and I go away for two weeks to be boyfriend and girlfriend again. It's very special. Of course we miss the kids, but we know we want the time together as well.
If I could change one thing about Gordon... it would probably be for us to have more time together. However, at this point in our lives we're young and we're busy, so it's all very well to say we need more time... but then, there's plenty of time for that later.
The most romantic thing I've ever done was a couple of years ago. Gordon was really busy and I went and met him after work and took him away for the weekend, as a complete surprise. We just revelled in a few days of being together in our own world and catching up.
Gordon and Tana Ramsay were talking to 'Woman & Home' magazine