The Unsettled Life of Boris Johnson Pal Jennifer Arcuri
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- I first met Jennifer Arcuri at Bloomberg’s London headquarters in 2015—four years before she became the center of a political scandal that has riveted the U.K. Arcuri was there to attend a conference on fintech, the hot new thing in British business, which I was writing about at the time. Dressed entirely in white, the bubbly Californian with a mane of beach-blonde hair and a rowdy laugh was in her element as she schmoozed with entrepreneurs and investors. She’d come out of nowhere a few years earlier to hold techie events of her own and cut a swath through London’s startup scene. A self-appointed master of ceremonies, Arcuri spoke in breathless monologues that swung from venture capital trends to industry gossip to something called “ethical hacking.” She seemed to know everyone, dropping the names of finance industry bigwigs and government ministers as if they were old friends. The most interesting VIP she talked about was “Boris.”
No surname was necessary for the then-mayor of London, the mop-topped politician who’d jolted Westminster with his disheveled charm and his ambition—and who, since July 2019, has been prime minister of Her Majesty’s government. It was clear straightaway that Arcuri was tight with the man she’d nicknamed “Alex the Great,” in a nod to Boris Johnson’s love of ancient Greece and Rome. The buzz in tech circles was that Arcuri and Johnson, who was married, were an item. With her flirty personality and penchant for striking provocative poses in pictures on social media, she didn’t exactly go out of her way to dispel the impression. As for Johnson, his philandering over the years was well chronicled in the British press.
Their relationship had begun in 2011 with a business proposition—a minor episode in the drama of London’s tech boom, when startups mushroomed in the East End, venture capitalists plowed money into the industry, and politicians flocked to the action like moths to flame. Arcuri was one of many jockeying for a perch in the rapidly expanding ecosystem. “He stood up for me, and we became good friends,” Arcuri told me. Whatever their relationship, Johnson would change her life as that first encounter spawned more business opportunities. Now, she just might unsettle his life, as speculation about their time together morphs into a tabloid opera with allegations of political favors and adultery, complete with an apartment equipped with a dance pole.
“She is a ball of energy, which is what you need as an entrepreneur,” says Sanford Dickert, the founder of OWLR Technologies, a London software firm, who worked with Arcuri in 2013. “People might have this image of her as this brash, buxom blonde, but that’s a stereotype. Jen had more brains and drive than two or three British politicians put together.”
That the tale is unfolding as Johnson tries to navigate the U.K. toward Brexit and lead the Conservative Party into a general election on Dec. 12 only cranks up the tension. Getting swept up in a political furor wasn’t exactly what Arcuri bargained for when she moved to London in 2011. There are multiple inquiries under way examining whether Johnson used his influence to steer public funds to her businesses and secure her spots on the city’s overseas trade missions from 2013 to 2015, while he was mayor. A separate review is probing the propriety of a £100,000 ($129,000) grant the British government gave her cybersecurity company, Hacker House, earlier this year. The fact that neither Arcuri or Johnson has explicitly denied that they were intimate has only fueled interest. “What happened between me and Boris is no one’s business,” she told me. A spokeswoman for No. 10 Downing Street declined to comment for this article. As for Arcuri, she says: “I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.”
Yet, in a series of interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek over the past few weeks, Arcuri recounts how she went from being just another American business student in London to a lightning rod at a particularly volatile political moment in the U.K. Her connection with Johnson has been splashed across the front pages of the nation’s tabloids and become a hot topic on TV talk shows. Pictures of her with Johnson also appeared on the placards of anti-Brexit demonstrators who marched in London on Oct. 19: “I bet he’d listen if she asked him to Stop Brexit,” read one sign.
Born in 1985, Arcuri moved around a lot as a kid, from New York to Kentucky to California. Arcuri’s university career was also nomadic, with stints studying politics at the University of Wisconsin and theater at Pace University in New York, and then filmmaking at the University of Southern California. She dabbled in some modeling and wanted a career in show business. In 2007, Arcuri spent a summer at the American University in Paris, where she made a short film for her senior thesis called La Valise. It was about an American woman’s misadventures dog-sitting a Maltese named Fifi for a wealthy French woman. She returned to California and acted in a low-budget indie film called Commute and then landed a small part in an Indian romantic comedy called Naughty @ 40 that was shooting in London. Arcuri fell in love with the city and returned in 2011. She enrolled in a one-year MBA course at Hult International School of Business, as much for the visa as for the degree.
Soon enough, Arcuri twigged on to the bubbling tech scene and, after some web searching, she decided to attend a one-day meeting of the British Venture Capital Association. Unwilling to pay the steep registration fee, Arcuri told the organizers she was the president of Hult’s VC club, which she made up on the spot, and they gave her a ticket. On Oct. 13, 2011, Arcuri attended the summit at the Landmark Hotel; toward the end of the program she found herself at a reception, along with “a bunch of old dudes in suits.” They were waiting for the mayor to show up, which Arcuri thought was pretty boring. But then Johnson bounded in. He made some anodyne remarks about support for tech companies, but Arcuri was astounded to see how the businessmen responded to his presence. “He turned this whole room of sour apples into howling schoolgirls,” Arcuri says. “It reminded me of something you’d see in Hollywood or on the stage.”
She waded through the crowd and offered her hand to Johnson. “I am the president of the Hult International School of Business Venture Capital Club, and I really think you should speak at our summit,” she told him. Arcuri, who had by then formed the club with about a dozen students, gave him a business card with her name and email address. Johnson’s entourage promptly moved her along.
Arcuri followed up with emails and postcards, and she even sent flowers to Johnson’s attention at City Hall. There was no response. “No one took me seriously,” Arcuri says, recalling the doubt among her professors and classmates. “They all laughed in my face.” But a few months later, she got an email from Johnson’s reelection organization, inviting her to join a campaign ride on a double-decker bus. Arcuri turned up at a station at 7 a.m. and donned a “Back Boris” T-shirt. Once Johnson hopped on, Arcuri buttonholed him as they cruised London’s streets. “Do you remember me?” she asked him. “Did you get my flowers? Remember you said you’d speak at my summit?” Johnson shrugged off the questions, she says, but as they got to chatting, he asked her to explain “this Tech City thing” he’d heard about. Arcuri had her opening—and it was paved with politics.
David Cameron, then the prime minister, had seized on the startup boom as a feel-good economic story for a country still recovering from the financial crash in 2008. British banks were an object of scorn as their sins continued to take a toll on the public purse. The rise of financial technology upstarts with innovative business models and a big dose of disruptive energy was a welcome challenge to the old order, even in Westminster. London was also becoming a hotbed of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity enterprises. So the government unveiled a public-private partnership in 2010 called “Tech City UK” to support all types of startups, and it also launched the British Business Bank to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in promising ventures. The programs rallied support for entrepreneurs and helped brand London as Europe’s hottest tech hub. And that reflected well on Cameron.
As it happened, Cameron and Johnson were rivals going back to their days as students at Eton College, the elite private boys’ boarding school, and at Oxford University. It was no secret that Johnson coveted the Tory leadership post and No. 10 Downing Street. Arcuri needled him as they chatted about Cameron’s success with Tech City UK. “Isn’t London your jurisdiction?” she asked him. “You are the one running things, right? How amazing would it be to have a mayor who supports tech.”
Arcuri was confident enough to pencil in Johnson for a 15-minute address at the InnoTech Summit on April 13, 2012. “No one thought he was coming,” she recalls, “and to be honest, I didn’t think he’d show, either. I was just a student, and this was the first event I was organizing.” She breathed a massive sigh of relief when he appeared at the Grand Connaught Rooms, where about 300 attendees were gathered, and embraced Tech City and similar initiatives. She formed an events business called InnoTech Network, and Johnson would go on to participate in three more of her events over the next couple of years.
The highlight was a session Arcuri hosted in April 2013 before an audience of about 200 at Level 39, a startup accelerator in the Canary Wharf financial district. By setting up online video links with entrepreneurs at simultaneous events in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, Arcuri engaged Johnson in a conversation about the challenges of setting up tech companies in London. Johnson took delight in trumpeting the strengths of his city. He was less excited about the intricacies of the digital world. “I could tell he didn’t really love the subject, and he didn’t have a tech adviser,” Arcuri says. So she cast herself in the role. “He would be like, ‘Jennifer, just tell me what a hashtag is,’ or ‘Jennifer, what’s a Google Hangout?’ So I threw a lot at him: encryption, public Wi-Fi, personal firewalls.”
In Johnson, Arcuri found a kindred spirit, a voluble man without an ounce of shyness who used humor to disarm his friends and his enemies. Some of her friends even remarked that they looked alike, and they teased her for hanging out with a married man. Today, though she says she hasn’t spoken with Johnson since 2016, she remains loyal to him. She suspects Johnson’s political adversaries are using her to get to him—and she’s collateral damage. “I will not be the person to bring Boris Johnson down,” Arcuri says. “I refuse to be a pawn.”
The two texted often and got together to eat—a fish lunch at Borough Market, a foodie bazaar not far from City Hall, and an Italian dinner in Bloomsbury. They talked about technology, Barack Obama, and U.S. politics. One time, she brought up her friend Tom Hayes, a onetime securities trader at Citigroup Inc. and UBS Group AG who was arrested in the U.K. for rigging the benchmark Libor interest rate. Arcuri, who’d met Hayes at business school and became a director of his startup, told Johnson how upset she was that he was being prosecuted. “He looked at me and said, ‘Look Jennifer, the world is full of bad men, be careful,’” Arcuri recalls. She says Johnson reminded her that she was now helping City Hall promote the city’s technology industry, and she shouldn’t get caught up with controversial people. (Hayes was found guilty of financial crimes in 2015 and sentenced to 11 years in prison).
Given Johnson’s fame, it became uncomfortable meeting in public; whenever he could steal some time in the afternoons and evenings, he dropped by her live-work space in Shoreditch, a hipster enclave at the heart of the startup community. Arcuri’s three-bedroom flat served as her office, so she often met there with potential business partners. She liked to party, too, so her friends from the tech scene hung out there a lot. Arcuri installed a dance pole in the living room. While it looked like a piece of hardware you’d find in a strip club, Arcuri used it for “S Factor,” an exercise regimen designed for women. Still, she says guests loved dancing around the pole after a few drinks, and at a Halloween party she posed sliding down on it dressed in a German barmaid’s costume. The picture wound up being published numerous times in the British press.
Things were more sedate when Johnson popped by, Arcuri says. If her roommates or friends were there, they’d take a walk, she says. “When he came over, he’d stay a little while,” she says. “It wasn’t long hours sitting by the pole. Boris felt like doing tech made him look cool. It was not some romantic thing.”
Johnson gave her conference business an edge. She often invoked the mayor when pitching prospective business partners and signing up speakers for the dozen or so InnoTech confabs she held from 2012 to 2016, say people who dealt with her. At the same time, she forged ties with London & Partners, City Hall’s promotional arm, which Johnson set up in 2011. The agency approved a £12,000 sponsorship for InnoTech to host an online hangout and hold panel discussions at the World Islamic Economic Forum in October 2013. Johnson took part in that one. The following June, London & Partners provided Arcuri’s company a £1,800 sponsorship to hold an event on automation called Tech vs. Brains at the House of Commons, which Johnson did not attend. Then she took part in trade missions led by Johnson to Asia, the U.S., and Israel. Along the way, Arcuri made a name for herself as a skilled, if somewhat disorganized impresario. “Jennifer could put on great content and light up a room, but there was always a bit of chaos or drama along with that,” says an industry executive who attended her confabs.
Still, Arcuri’s InnoTech struggled to make ends meet: In fiscal 2014, the company lost almost £67,000, and in 2015 it was down £57,000. “I did everything on a shoestring,” Arcuri says. “And InnoTech was in a really dire position.” It’s been moribund since 2016.
By the time I met Arcuri at Bloomberg in June 2015, she was shifting into something new: ethical hacking. She had become interested in rehabilitating skilled, young hackers who had run afoul of the law, transforming them into certified cybersecurity experts. It wasn’t just the social mission that fascinated her. Arcuri believed that companies and government agencies were so desperate for innovative ways to combat cyberattacks that they would welcome the expertise of reformed hackers. So she formed a for-profit venture called Hacker House and rented a six-bedroom mansion outside Manchester to serve as its base. She started pitching her company’s services to Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, KPMG, and the U.K.’s National Crime Agency.
It sounded to me like a quixotic idea, even crazy. But there was an urgent need to find skilled cyber-sleuths in the corporate sector. So in early 2016, I tagged along with Arcuri and her band of hackers as they took part in a “penetration testing” certification course near Cambridge University. One of her charges was Lauri Love, then a 31-year-old computer whiz with Asperger’s syndrome who’d become a legend in the cyber-underground for allegedly hacking the Federal Reserve, NASA, and other American agencies. The U.S. Justice Department had indicted Love in 2013 and was seeking his extradition. Arcuri brought Love into Hacker House to show he was using his skills to be a good citizen, which might help him win favor with British courts during his fight against extradition.
At the class, Love and his three colleagues took their places at PCs alongside corporate IT guys and ex-cops. In a series of exercises, they breached the defenses and looted the data from a hypothetical bank without breaking a sweat. As they waited for the rest of the class to catch up, Love and his mates chatted about code and hacking tools and other incomprehensible subjects with the instructors. Afterward, Arcuri beamed like a proud den mother and treated them all to burgers and beers at a local pub. “What do you think of my guys?” she asked me. “Pretty cool, right?” (Love would drop out of Hacker House in 2016; the next year a British court ruled against extraditing him to the U.S.)
For all her efforts, Arcuri struggled to grow Hacker House into a business. Major institutions, no surprise, were wary of associating with hackers who might have criminal records. But the enterprise did change Arcuri’s personal life in a dramatic way. In 2016, Matthew Hickey, a cybersecurity consultant, joined forces with Arcuri. He found a company with a lot of talent and energy but a lack of strategic direction and organization, he wrote in an email. Hickey, an intense and soft-spoken Brit, pared back the company’s reliance on Arcuri’s hacker squad and developed an online cybersecurity training course called “Hands-on Hacking.” By June 2018, Arcuri and Hickey had gotten married and welcomed a daughter. They moved to Orange County, Calif., to be closer to a client in the Bay Area and spend time with Arcuri’s family. The plan was to stay for several months and eventually return to Britain. However, questions about Arcuri’s links to Johnson, and City Hall, were about to surface.
On Sept. 22, the Sunday Times published a report alleging that Johnson may have improperly used his influence to steer public money to InnoTech for its two events in 2013 and 2014. The paper also reported that it appeared Johnson or his aides had intervened to get Arcuri spots on trade missions he led to drum up business for London. While the Sunday Times didn’t report that Arcuri and Johnson had been involved in a romantic relationship, the story featured pictures of Arcuri modeling, and it triggered a media firestorm.
British reporters and TV producers besieged the house she rents in Huntington Beach, a laid-back California town famous for its surf spots. The reporters followed her on errands to the supermarket and her daughter’s school. They all wanted to know if she’d slept with Johnson, and several offered more than $20,000 for her story. She refused to confirm or deny an affair, and was upset at being cast as a “pole-dancing ex-model” in the tabloids. “I was portrayed as some tart who got everything I did because I slept with this powerful man,” Arcuri told me.
She was mortified at the turn her life had taken. And the stress took a toll: She spent sleepless nights worrying about the damage to her business and whether she’d ever be able to return home to the U.K. “My nerves are going insane,” Arcuri texted me one day. “This is SO much to handle. No one equips you for the mental burn.”
Still, I got the sense there was a part of Arcuri that savored being center stage. She compared herself to Anne Boleyn and Johnson to Henry VIII in an interview with the Daily Mail, an eyebrow-raising characterization that was bound to pump more oxygen into the story. And Arcuri jousted amiably on live television with Piers Morgan, the co-anchor of Good Morning Britain. When Morgan asked her whether Johnson ever tried to use the pole in her flat for a laugh, Arcuri smiled mischievously. “I’m never, never going to tell you that,” she said.
Now the authorities are looking for answers to less frivolous questions. Under the city’s code of conduct, the mayor and other officials are required to declare their personal relationships with recipients of public money. An agency called the Independent Office for Police Conduct is reviewing whether to open a criminal investigation into Johnson’s links with Arcuri.
Meanwhile, London’s current mayor, Sadiq Khan, a member of the opposition Labour Party, has directed officials to scrutinize how money was granted to Arcuri’s enterprises. The oversight committee of the London Assembly—the 25-member city council—wants the prime minister to fork over his communications with Arcuri. On Oct. 8, the prime minister declined to submit his emails, text messages, and a timeline of his appointments with Arcuri. The oversight committee has agreed to wait until the police conduct agency completes its inquiry. Johnson has denied any impropriety several times.
For her part, Arcuri rejects the idea that she needed favors from Johnson to get city funding for her events. As tech got hot in the early ‘10s, not a week went by without a huge number of panel discussions, hackathons, and hangouts in the postindustrial loft spaces of London’s “Silicon Roundabout.” There was a lot of demand for conference coordinators who could promote the city. She’d developed a rapport with officials at London & Partners who supervised its events program. Arcuri says she spoke frequently with David Slater, the former director of international trade and investment at the agency.
Pru Ashby, a senior official at London & Partners and an influential champion of London’s startup community, rented a room in Arcuri’s flat for two months in 2013. The two women attended events together, and Ashby became a good friend and mentor. “She knew everybody, and she introduced me to everybody,” Arcuri says. “Her whole remit was helping startups, and she knew how passionate I was about InnoTech and London.” A spokesman for London & Partners says: “Pru Ashby knew Jennifer Arcuri socially. She made her managers aware of that fact, and was not responsible for decisions to support Ms Arcuri’s businesses, which were taken by more senior leaders.”
Things get thornier when it comes to the trade missions Arcuri joined in 2014 and 2015. Designed to showcase British innovation, the city’s trips were reserved for a select group of business people who got to network with potential partners and investors. Johnson led delegations on tours of prestigious universities such as MIT in Cambridge, Mass., and in meetings with such dignitaries as the prime ministers of Malaysia and Singapore. Arcuri’s ventures didn’t fit the criteria for the missions to Asia in November 2014 or to Tel Aviv in November 2015, according to the Sunday Times. Yet, after officials in the mayor’s office intervened, she joined both trips, the paper reported. She also materialized in New York at the same time a trade mission to the U.S. East Coast arrived in February 2015. An email obtained by the Sunday Times showed that Johnson asked London & Partners staffers to grant her access to events on the trip.
Arcuri says she was “very pushy” in requesting places on the trips. Given her work with London & Partners, she saw no reason why she shouldn’t be allowed come along and represent her ventures and London. But she denies that Johnson pulled any strings for her. If anything, she says he failed to respond to her entreaties, and his staff also tried to put her off. “I was going insane with Boris,” she says. “I was like, ‘Dude, what is your deal?’ He knew there was a potential for conflict, and this is why he never did anything. The mayor’s team made things very difficult. But I was just not going to take no for an answer. Why should I not get to go to Singapore because I was friends with Boris.”
Separately, Arcuri is also confronting questions from British lawmakers, who are asking if she misled officials when Hacker House applied for a £100,000 government grant in 2018. The award was part of a program run by the U.K.’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to increase the diversity and number of Britons in the cybersecurity industry. On Jan. 18, officials informed Arcuri that Hacker House had been approved for the grant, which would be disbursed monthly. The company was obliged to train and help place 50 candidates in cybersecurity positions in 2019 and 2020.
For Arcuri, the decision was a long-sought validation of her business model and the risk she took in setting up Hacker House. The best part, Arcuri says, was that there was no need for her and Hickey to be physically present in the U.K., because the course was entirely online. They managed to train and place 11 candidates by September. After the scandal broke, DCMS froze the undisbursed £53,000 portion of the award, pending an audit of the grant to Hacker House.
In a hearing of a parliamentary oversight committee on Oct. 16, two members asked whether Hacker House was a British company or an American one. The program had been designated for companies registered in the U.K., and the lawmakers said Hacker House didn’t appear to have a legitimate or current address in the country or any locally based employees. Jo Stevens, a Labour member of Parliament, asked whether DCMS was prepared to refer Hacker House to the police for criminal investigation if evidence showed the grant was “obtained by deception.” Stevens also asked whether Johnson was linked in any way to the selection of Arcuri’s company for the award.
According to corporate filings, Hacker House is registered to a “virtual address” in London, which is akin to a post office box . In the hearing, Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for DCMS and a member of Johnson’s cabinet, declined to speculate on the outcome of the audit. Yet, in a letter to the committee, Morgan said the residence of company officers “is not one of the defining characteristics” of whether a firm is based in the U.K. As for Johnson, whose term as mayor ended in 2016, Morgan said he had not been involved with or influenced the training program or the selection of grant recipients in any way. “Funding for this scheme was awarded through open and fair competition,” says a spokesman for DCMS. “We regularly monitor grant initiatives and treat any allegations of impropriety with the utmost seriousness.”
Officials managing the program at DCMS knew Arcuri and Hickey were living abroad when they applied for the grant, according to emails she produced. The government was also aware that the couple planned on returning to live in the U.K. because Arcuri’s “exceptional talent” visa came through in July. Arcuri was so keen on expanding Hacker House’s role in the program that she was preparing to apply for an additional £100,000 grant at the time the speculation about her and Johnson came out in September.
On Oct. 31, the U.K. Government Internal Audit Agency found that Arcuri didn't mislead DCMS when she applied for the program and that the process had been “appropriate.” Still, the company’s application could have been “clearer” in describing its “limited trading history” and a breakdown of the roles of staff, the audit said.
As Arcuri contemplates what's next for her company, other avenues have suddenly opened up for her. She’s been talking to entertainment managers and producers about making appearances on reality TV programs in the U.K., including Dancing with the Stars, and Loose Women, a daytime talk show. She's eyeing a return to her adopted country in November, and would like to do a speaking tour, a move that could prove awkward as the election approaches.
She seems to me to be both dismayed and upbeat at this twist of fate. “Apparently, I have lots of opportunities for the Jennifer Arcuri brand, whatever the f--- that means,” she says. “I spent all those years in London trying to be famous, and this is not the dream I had. And maybe I made some mistakes. But would I do anything different? Absolutely not, because I loved every minute of it.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at email@example.com
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