By Estelle Shirbon and Georgina Prodhan
LONDON (Reuters) - Rebekah Brooks rose from secretary to chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper group, but the woman who once partied with prime ministers now faces criminal charges and possible prison time.
Entering a London police station on Tuesday to be told she was charged with hiding evidence from police investigating phone-hacking by some of her reporters, Brooks was beset by cameramen and photographers eager to capture every detail of her dramatic fall from grace.
Instantly recognizable with her long mane of red curls, Brooks, 43, has rarely been out of the news since the phone-hacking scandal exploded last summer, forcing Murdoch to hastily shut down the News of the World newspaper she used to edit.
An intensely private woman who splashed intimate details of other people's lives on the front pages of her newspapers, Brooks was forced out into the full glare of the world's media last Friday for a day of televised grilling.
Testifying at the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, which was set up as a result of the News of the World saga, Brooks displayed both the charm and the steel that beguiled the great and the good of British media and politics for so long.
Out of the many powerful people Brooks befriended during her stellar career, Murdoch was the one who made the biggest impact on her life. Her close friendship with the News Corp tycoon gave her entree in the most exclusive circles and he repaid her loyalty and friendship with one huge promotion after another.
After rising in just 11 years from secretary to editor of the News of the World in 2000, aged 31, Brooks became the first woman editor of the Sun in 2003. In 2009, Murdoch made her CEO of News International, his British newspaper group.
Confronted by a crowd of reporters and asked what was his top priority as he flew into London last July to take charge of the hacking crisis, Murdoch put his arm around Brooks and answered: "This one".
People who know Brooks are not surprised by her ability to inspire such loyalty from the tough-talking media mogul.
"She's sinuous and clever and probably the most brilliant networker I've ever met," said veteran media commentator Roy Greenslade, a former News International journalist who has known Brooks for many years.
Brooks was not able to counter a general long-term fall in newspaper circulation, but she was respected by colleagues and her emphasis on celebrity-focused stories pleased readers.
Unlike Murdoch, who used his own appearance at Leveson in April to stick the knife into former allies who have turned on him, Brooks smiled and blushed and sought to avoid answering questions that would embarrass the friends in high places who are now keeping their distance.
It was only after a clear order from the judge presiding over the inquiry that she reluctantly revealed that Prime Minister David Cameron used to sign off his frequent text messages to her with an affectionate "LOL - lots of love".
But when she was pressed over some of the controversial stories she ran during her time as editor of the Sun, Britain's most widely read newspaper, Brooks grew visibly irritated and turned the tables on the lawyer who was questioning her.
"We're not in a tabloid newsroom now, we're at an inquiry," she chided him. She went on to complain that many of the questions concerned "gossipy" stories that had appeared in the media about her and said that if she were "a grumpy old man" nobody would write a word about these matters.
There was little sympathy for Brooks among the many people who suffered maulings by the Murdoch press during her years as editor and chief executive.
"The sudden transformation of Mrs Brooks from a high-powered friend of the mighty to an injured young woman just doesn't wash," said Clare Short, a former minister under Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair who once fell foul of Brooks's Sun.
Short had complained about the topless models on Page 3 of the newspaper, a daily feature introduced by Murdoch in 1970. The Sun retaliated with a crudely doctored image of Short's head set on an overweight woman's body, under the headline: "Fat, jealous Clare brands Page 3 porn". The Sun also dispatched a busload of the topless models to Short's home.
"She used her papers to humiliate and viciously attack women, and her femininity to get close to powerful men. She experienced much less hurtful gossip than she dished out," Short told Reuters on Tuesday.
Former employees describe her as "one of the lads" who fitted into the macho culture of the tabloids by swearing in the newsroom and drinking in the pub with colleagues - while making it very clear who was boss.
"At first, I wondered who was this person flouncing around the office with big red hair like she owned the place. I soon found out," said one ex-Sun reporter.
As News of the World editor, she caused controversy with a campaign to "name and shame" child sex offenders that resulted in a mob attacking a pediatrician mistaken for a pedophile.
It was under her editorship that an investigator working for the News of the World hacked into the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, later found murdered. That was the incident which, when made public, opened the floodgates of revelations that led to the demise of the News of the World and the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry.
Brooks says she did not know about the hacking, but on Tuesday she was charged with hiding documents and computers from the police and conspiring to remove records from Murdoch's London headquarters.
Her second husband Charlie, a racehorse trainer and a contemporary of Cameron at Eton College, an exclusive private school, was also charged, for allegedly assisting the cover-up.
It was a shocking turn of events for the couple, who had previously enjoyed a charmed life. Their 2009 wedding at a sprawling countryside estate brought together the Murdoch family, Cameron, then in opposition, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah.
It was a measure of Rebekah Brooks's power that the Browns attended the event, given their dismay at her decision three years earlier to splash news of their four-month-old baby's cystic fibrosis diagnosis on the front page of the Sun.
The wedding, which despite its celebrity guest list received no media coverage, was also an example of Brooks' remarkable ability to maintain her privacy despite her high profile.
The birth of her daughter Scarlett by a surrogate mother in January was marked only by an official statement and photograph.
A rare exception was a 2005 incident when Brooks, then known by her maiden name Rebekah Wade, was arrested for allegedly assaulting her then husband Ross Kemp, an actor in the popular TV soap opera Eastenders. Rival newspapers gleefully noted that the arrest came while the Sun was running a campaign against domestic violence.
Released with no further action taken, Brooks reportedly went straight to work after her overnight stay in the cells, wearing a designer suit that Rupert Murdoch had sent to the police station.
"She wouldn't bring her personal life into the office," says a former News of the World reporter.
"She wouldn't come in and say: 'Ross and I have had a terrible row,' like some women might. She was more likely to come in and say: 'Where the hell is that page you promised me?'"
(Editing by Giles Elgood)