The left-leaning leader who is slated to become Denmark's first female prime minister was once derided within her own ranks as "Gucci Helle" because of her taste for designer clothes and accessories.
After returning the Social Democrats to power following 10 years in opposition, no one questions Helle Thorning-Schmidt's credentials as leader of a party sprung from Denmark's labor movement in 1871. But the 44-year-old mother of two still faces doubts about her ability to act as a unifying figure for the diverse "red bloc" that won Thursday's election, and for Denmark as a whole.
Tall, blonde and elegantly dressed, Thorning-Schmidt projected confidence and poise during meetings with voters, and handled media with wit and a disarming smile. The questions is whether she can convince parties that don't agree on the taxes and welfare cuts needed to shore up public finances amid Europe's debt crisis.
Thorning-Schmidt had been a lawmaker in the European Parliament in Brussels for five years when she was elected Social Democratic leader in 2005.
"She's quite an international person, she's been in the European Parliament for some years so that where she got her political schooling," said Kasper Hansen, of the University of Copenhagen.
"She's not so experienced with Danish politics, in terms of negotiating within Parliament," he said. "So that will be her big challenge ... how can she maneuver in this new parliamentary arena."
Her inexperience in domestic politics showed off in the 2007 election, when she was outshined by her main opponent, the polished Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"Danes need more time before they hand over responsibility to us," she said, teary-eyed after the Social Democrats plunged to their worst election result in a century.
Fogh Rasmussen's departure to head NATO gave her a more humble adversary on the center-right: Lars Loekke Rasmussen. In debates leading up to Thursday's vote, Thorning-Schmidt came across as more organized and charismatic than Loekke Rasmussen, a number-crunching former finance minister who embarrassed Denmark with his weak leadership of the botched U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen two years ago.
Now she must apply a different skill set, as she enters thorny government formation talks with left-wing and centrist partners with sometimes conflicting views.
Thorning-Schmidt got a master's degree in political science from Copenhagen University in 1994. Two years later, she married Stephen Kinnock, former British Labor Leader Neal Kinnock's son, whom she met in Belgium.
She lives with their two daughters, Johanna, 14, and Camilla, 11, in a rowhouse in northern Copenhagen, while Kinnock is based in Switzerland as a director of the World Economic Forum.
Their living arrangements were the focus of a brief investigation by Danish tax authorities amid allegations that the couple evaded taxes by underreporting the number of days Kinnock spent in the Nordic country. Thorning-Schmidt admitted making a mistake and was cleared of tax evasion.