Second Life: Diana Jenkins

Partying with Elton John and rebuilding Bosnia are all in a day’s work for refugee–turned–glam activist Diana Jenkins.


The day after the catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in January, Diana Jenkins, a former Bosnian refugee now married to one of Britain’s wealthiest financiers, ran into Sean Penn at a friend’s house in Malibu. The two had met years earlier, at Dennis Hopper’s birthday party in Cannes, and remained close. Hearing Penn talk about his desire to do something for the quake victims, Jenkins offered her support. Beyond her $1 million infusion of funds into what became the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization, she recruited doctors and nurses, ordered water filters and medical supplies, and chartered a cargo plane. Within five days Jenkins and Penn were in Haiti, sleeping in tents as they changed bandages and dispensed aid. “Because it was my own money, we were very agile,” she says. “But it doesn’t matter how fast the world reacts. You’re always five minutes too late for somebody.”

Haiti is worlds removed from Jenkins’s rambling beach house high above the Pacific in Malibu, where, on this cloudless spring day, she is sipping a cappuccino on the patio. The resourceful 37-year-old beauty does, however, know her way around a disaster zone: Born Sanela Catic in Sarajevo, she fled her hometown at the start of the siege in 1992, crawling through a tunnel beneath the airport and walking to Croatia. She eventually made her way to London. But eight days before the end of the war, in 1995, her 21-year-old brother, Irnis, was shot dead by paramilitaries.

Since then, Jenkins says, she has lived a double life, shuttling between two poles of herself that she is only now trying to reconcile. On one hand, there’s Sanela, the shy, private wife and mother who tracks down war criminals via the center she endowed at UCLA and who’s working to rebuild Bosnia through the foundation she created in her brother’s memory. Then there’s Diana, the glossy girl-about-town she conjured to try to forget what Sanela has been through. “I was 23 and felt 100 years old,” she says. “That girl, Sanela, I didn’t want to know her anymore because she had so much on her shoulders. So I invented Diana—all smiley and happy, beautiful, charming.”

It’s Diana—named for the goddess of the hunt—who holidays in Hawaii with Elton John and his partner, David Furnish; throws fundraisers that draw Bono and George Clooney; and recently launched a line of health drinks with such names as NeuroTrim and NeuroGasm.

“She’s a master seducer,” says Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon, who calls Jenkins her “wingman” on the circuit. “She’s extraordinarily beautiful, and you get kind of mesmerized by her. But when you’re in her clutches, it’s great. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

Even to Furnish, no stranger to the social swirl, Diana’s ability to navigate multiple orbits is striking. “She’s like the pied piper,” says Furnish, who met her when she attended the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s White Tie and Tiara Ball seven years ago. Describing the week he spent a year or two ago on the yacht Jenkins charters in Cannes in May, he says, “She’ll go to a club and find the coolest and most interesting people to hang with, and then everybody comes back to the boat, and she’ll have a DJ spinning, and the atmosphere just clicks. Suddenly there’s Bono, and there’s Sean Penn; there’s Julian Schnabel. And the next thing you know, it’s six o’clock in the morning, and Diana’s closest friends are all in the galley eating grilled cheese sandwiches.”

Sanela, however, “doesn’t really approve of Diana,” Jenkins says, noting that Diana’s template, initially, was Dynasty, which she watched weekly before the war. As a result, she made a few missteps, such as the time she remarked on how “addictive” private jet travel was while posing in a $12,000 mink poncho on the steps of her Gulfstream for a 2005 New York Times Magazine story about Aspen.

Warm and engaging in person, Jenkins is the first to laugh at her early excesses. “I’m embarrassed by some pictures—I look almost like a transvestite,” she says, her blond hair pulled into a messy ponytail that sets off her delicate features and generous pout, which is ringed with pink lipliner. Tall and willowy, she’s dressed in clingy black jersey pants, a black cotton top cut low in the back and mohair ankle boots, with a leopard-print scarf tied dramatically around her neck. “People at the party would be staring because my hair was too blond. I didn’t have anyone to advise me, so you stumble. At some point I was like, Who cares? You find the place to fit in.”

London, unfortunately, was not one of those places. “They couldn’t figure out my background,” she says, choosing her words carefully owing to the firestorm in the British press last year after she told Tatler that in the UK she’d been treated like “an Eastern European mail-order bride.” In Malibu, where her friends include Kid Rock, Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer and legendary producer Jerry Weintraub, it’s more relaxed. “Here they accept the street dog from Sarajevo,” says Jenkins, “the craziness of Diana and Sanela.”

Growing up in Communist Yugoslavia, she was a tomboy raised in a close-knit, nonreligious Bosnian Muslim family. Her strict father, orphaned by WWII, was an economist, her mother an accountant. When the war broke out she left them, her brother and her economics studies behind, spending 18 months in a refugee camp in Croatia. It was difficult for men to leave Sarajevo, and her mother chose to stay with her husband and son but urged her daughter to flee. “I went from Daddy’s princess to not having anything to eat,” Jenkins says, “not knowing if my family was alive.” How she found her way to London in 1993 is a subject she is not ready to discuss. “I have Band-Aids everywhere, and slowly I’ve taken them off,” she says. “But I’m not going near that one yet.”

At first she lived in gritty Brixton and worked as a cleaner and salesclerk, paying her way through a computer science program at City University. Four years later, at the gym, she met Roger Jenkins, then a rising star at Barclays. They married in 1999, and she gave birth to their son, Innis, named to honor her late brother. Her parents, who’d joined her in London after the war, moved in to help raise him. A daughter, Eneya, followed, and it was then, in 2002, that Jenkins began reclaiming her ties to Bosnia, by establishing the Irnis Catic Foundation, which funds hospitals, schools and rebuilding efforts. In the beginning she kept her work quiet. “I was busy being Diana, and this was Sanela’s secret world,” she says. “It should have been the thing I was most proud of.”

While her transformation from refugee to global networker may have been facilitated by her husband’s earning power, Diana, her friends point out, is a gale force in her own right. “If someone steps out of line, she has no problem telling them,” says Mellon, “and she doesn’t care who.” In March, hours before she was to host a dinner for the Clinton Foundation, Jenkins was on the phone with Bosnian President Haris Silajdži´c, to whom she acts as honorary adviser, arranging to post bail for former Bosnian vice president Ejup Ganic, who had just been arrested in London for alleged war crimes. (Jenkins sees the charges as trumped up, part of a Serbian campaign to “whitewash” atrocities.) A competitive athlete in her teens, she likes to move quickly: Two years ago she committed $4 million to set up the Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project at UCLA, just 48 hours after first e-mailing the law professor who would become its director. Focused on international war crimes and justice policy, the program is exploring ways to use technology to map abuse and allow witnesses greater ease in uploading documentation of human rights violations.

That she played a role in her husband’s success is widely known. When asked for details, however, Jenkins turns evasive, pausing to smile at her 11-year-old son, who’s making goofy faces at her through the window. “Roger’s world is numbers,” she says. “Diana’s world is she knows everybody. I love to put the puzzles together and have everybody benefit.” And benefit they do: In 2008, when Barclays appeared on the verge of a government bailout, a multibillion-dollar investment by a Qatari prince whom Diana had introduced to her husband helped save the bank.

Though by all accounts close, the couple lead independent lives and come together for visits and family trips. “The worst thing you can do is try to control her,” says Mellon, “and Roger understands that.” He also knows what she can accomplish when left to her own devices, as he himself acknowledges. “Once she decides to do something, she just does it,” Roger says. “And she’s always successful. She’s been a great mentor to me over the last decade and made me achieve things I never thought were possible.”

As it turns out, Roger, 54, is not the only one in the family with a knack for business. Last year Diana commissioned a screenplay for a film about the late fugitive financier Robert Vesco that she plans to produce with Mellon. She’s also a partner with designer Melissa Odabash in a trendy swimwear business, and in May she expanded her launch of Neuro from the West Coast and London to New York. She has overseen every aspect of the brand, with her famous friends pitching in as amateur publicists. Furnish recalls being in Villefranche-sur-Mer in May 2009 with Jenkins, Sir Elton, Hayden Panettiere and others when they realized they were being trailed by paparazzi. “We thought, If we’re going to be papped, let’s sell some Neuro,” he says. So they jumped off the yacht for a swim and waved their bottled drinks in the air. “The pictures were online within hours.”

Yet as much as she enjoys the glamorous life that Diana has created, lately, Jenkins says, she has been pushing Sanela to the forefront. “I feel like now I should be able to meet people and just be myself, without hiding behind that mask of bubbly blond,” she says. “Five years ago, if you’d asked me to choose between them, I would have said, absolutely Diana.” But given her recent success as an in-the-trenches activist, she has changed her mind. “With everything I’ve been able to achieve and offer as Sanela, my answer would be, Diana’s got to go. Sanela has to stay.” Still, she has little interest in mulling over her past. “For me, it’s all about ‘Do it now,’” she says. “I don’t even like to look at albums of my kids when they were little. This is today. Once it’s over, it’s over.”