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The broken billionaire: Inside James Packer's tough mental health battle

In the wake of a devastating breakdown, Ingrid Pyne asks whether James Packer has the strength for another comeback.

By Ingrid Pyne
Summer on the French Riviera and the serious money has once again arrived in Europe's playground.
James Packer is here, as he is most years, aboard Mischief, the 52-metre super yacht he is renting this summer from Sydney skip bin king Ian Malouf for a cool $400,000 a week.
As he awaits delivery of his own new $200 million 'gigayacht' – slated for August 1 – there is a sense that the tide may be finally turning for the troubled billionaire.
"He's got a smile on his face more often than he has had for a long, long time," says a close friend of Packer, who is recovering from his third breakdown in 15 years.
"These last few weeks have definitely been a turning point – there is no doubt about it."
After a tumultuous few years, Packer is slowly getting his personal and professional life in order. Last month he sold a 20 per cent stake in Crown Resorts for $1.8 billion.
In December, he got a Cavoodle named Waffle with his long-term girlfriend, the socialite Kylie Lim.
And – most significantly – he appears to have made peace with his older sister, Gretel.
The pair has been embroiled in a bitter battle over the family fortune, which ended with James reluctantly handing over 100 per cent control of Ellerston, their famed polo estate in the NSW Hunter Valley; the family's long-time seaside retreat at fashionable Palm Beach; and the Arctic P super yacht, among other assets.
But sources close to Packer confirmed that the siblings recently lunched together at Packer's $80 million Los Angeles mansion, the sprawling former home of Hollywood actor Danny DeVito.
"That will go a long way towards improving his mental state," says a Packer confidante.
"Their fight really knocked him about. It was a massive emotional strain on him."
Packer, who has a history of fractious and fractured friendships, has also been reaching out to old friends, including his fellow media scion and one-time business partner Lachlan Murdoch. The pair caught up recently in Los Angeles, the city they now both call home.
James Packer has long battled with mental health. Getty
It all seems a far cry from two years ago, when an isolated Packer was downing a bottle of vodka a day and fretting about going broke in the wake of his split from fiancée Mariah Carey.
The breakdown followed a turbulent four years, spanning the collapse of his second marriage to Erica Packer, mother of his three young children; an ill-fated foray into the work-hard, play-hard ways of Hollywood (which Packer himself has described as "wild, really wild"); the failure of his ambitious US casino push; the detention of 17 employees of Crown Resorts in China; a rumoured relationship with supermodel Miranda Kerr; a corruption investigation into his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the acrimonious fight with Gretel; and the loss of many longstanding friends, including a much publicised punch-up with former best mate David Gyngell.
"With Hollywood, Mariah, Israel, China, all of those things, I was like Icarus," Packer told journalist Damon Kitney, somewhat euphemistically, for his authorised biography, The Price of Fortune: The Untold Story of Being James Packer.
"I flew too close to the sun."
Unlike Icarus, Packer's hubris did not kill him – yet his crash back to earth was severe enough for friends to describe his current mental crisis as the most serious yet.
As recently as March, when footage emerged of Packer lumbering awkwardly into Melbourne's Crown Casino, head bent, obese and looking far older than his 51 years, friends were questioning his ability to bounce back.
"That video, every time you see him, you just cringe," former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett tells The Weekly. "I am terribly saddened by where he is at now."
Packer's fleeting trip to Melbourne, then Perth, marked his first visit "home" in the year since he'd shocked the world by admitting what friends had long suspected: he is suffering from a debilitating mental illness.
For almost two years, he has lived the life of a virtual – and heavily medicated – recluse at his homes in Aspen, Los Angeles and Argentina.
Having been prescribed different drugs by doctors in Israel, Argentina and then Boston, he has admitted he struggled to function at times.
A friend who met up with him recently was struck by the change.
"He was very flat. There was no spark in his eyes. He was just a changed human being," he says.
"If you had said to me, 'James is going to be on medication and be stable,' I would have said, 'Great'. But I walked away and thought, 'F**k, that's a huge price to pay.' ... I was pretty depressed by the whole thing."
Packer and Mariah Carey during happier times. Getty
Others, however, insist the drugs have achieved their primary goal.
"He is stable for the first time in years," says a friend, who has known Packer since he was a boy.
"He's a different person for sure. His speech is slowed, but he is not so cantankerous and volatile, and he is much more considered."
In times of trouble past, Packer has sought spiritual solutions to his problems.
After his first breakdown, in 2002, it was speculated that he turned to Scientology on the recommendation of the actor Tom Cruise, who Packer credited with "putting me back together".
But since distancing himself from the organisation, Packer and Cruise no longer speak.
"It's his choice that we aren't friends anymore," Packer told Kitney.
This time around, Packer has turned to the US-based Thom Knoles, a maharishi (or master teacher) of meditation, a mental technique for relaxation developed 5000 years
ago in India, to supplement his prescription medication regime.
Packer has even travelled to the foothills of the Himalayas with Knoles, who for 29 years had a meditation practice in the eastern Sydney suburb of Woollahra.
"Some say he's too far gone – it looks as if he's given up," says Kennett, adding he didn't catch up with Packer on his most recent trip to Australia.
"It will require a lot of will and I don't know whether he's got that right now. But can he come back? Of course he can. He's proved he can in the past."
A usually press-shy Packer told The Australian Financial Review earlier this month: "I am terribly overweight and I have got to do something about that next. I have done it before and hopefully can begin to do it again. I am feeling better."
It has often been speculated that Packer suffers from bipolar disorder, which causes extreme mood shifts ranging from mania to depression.
It is the same mental illness that Mariah Carey admitted to having in April last year.
A much-leaner Packer pictured in 2016. Getty
Friends and family speak of Packer's extreme emotional highs and lows.
Over the years, journalists have delighted in his erratic behaviour, whether it be angrily putting former Fairfax chairman Ron Walker in a kind of headlock as they awaited the Queen, challenging former Nine Network boss David Leckie to take it outside at a posh function at the Sydney Opera House or sending worrying emails on Australia's foreign policy to then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, prompting the PM to call and check that Packer was alright.
Many have been at the end of furious email tirades from Packer, which goes some way towards explaining why he no longer speaks to many old chums from the elite Cranbrook School.
"I think what happened is he just drove them away with his abuse," says a person who knows the group, which includes Gyngell, Matthew Csidei, Chris Hancock and his wife, the actress Dee Smart.
"It wasn't like they abandoned him or he had a new group of friends. He actively made it difficult so they kind of just moved on."
Packer has never publicly put a label on his condition, admitting only to Kitney: "I have wrestled with mental health issues at times in my life – depression and anxiety – especially in times of extreme stress. I have big mood swings."
The tragedy is that his condition has never, until now, been properly treated.
"He was entirely untreated at a young age," says a friend. "Now he's getting medical care for it."
It's not the first time that people have been caught off guard by erratic Packer behaviour.
James's uncle, Clyde, Kerry's older brother, who was first in line to assume the Packer crown, abruptly quit the business after a row with his father, and instead donned a caftan and moved to California.
"I was sick of lugging this Packer persona around with me," he later explained.
"You become enmeshed in the tycoon syndrome. It's self-destructive. You lose yourself. Your personality becomes smaller and smaller. I think it's a giant cover-up for inferiority."
The warning proved prescient for his nephew.
With ex-girlfriend Kate Fischer, now known as Tziporah Malkah, in the late 90s. Getty
With ex-wife Erica Packer at Derby Day in Melbourne, 2012. Getty
As you read this, Packer will no doubt still be kicking back on Mischief, bought second-hand for $40 million in 2015 by Dial A Dump founder Ian Malouf (dubbed Australia's richest garbo).
The luxury yacht features marble floors, leather walls, on-deck clay pigeon shooting and a climbing wall that lowers into the water.
Sources say Packer is likely to be joined, at various points this summer, by fellow billionaire Kerry Stokes; his mother Ros; current girlfriend Kylie; and other members of the Packer posse, which includes his schoolmate Ben Tilley; his trainer Damien "Chappy" Chapman; Guy Jalland, who heads up Packer's private company; the Argentine polo player Martin Pepa; and The Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston.
But the VIP visitors this summer will no doubt be his children, Indigo, Jackson and Emmanuelle, who are expected to join him at least twice.
"He lives and breathes his children. He speaks to them every day," says a friend.
In contrast to the parenting style of his own father, who was tough and brutal on his only son, Packer is said to be a "very affectionate, gentle" father.
A young James pictured in 2001. Getty
For now, Packer finds himself, in the words of one friend, "in a bit of a holding pattern".
He is still awaiting delivery of his new 107 metre gigayacht – the largest private vessel of its type, made by Italian shipbuilder Benetti – which will be named IJE after his children's initials.
And his next – and indeed only – big project is the $2.2 billion Barangaroo casino development in Sydney, which is due to open next year.
It has been described both as Packer's baby and his legacy, and is seen as a make-or-break development for Crown Resorts.
The rest of his commitments – his gaming business in Macau, his Hollywood movie production company RatPac and his board seat on Crown Resorts – have all been jettisoned.
"I'm tired of being on this roller-coaster. I don't want to do it anymore," Packer explained to Kitney. "I'm really ready to put my hands up for a few years. I really am."
Given all the emotional and financial woes of the past five years, one has to wonder whether Packer would have been happier if he had chosen this path all along.
Instead of trying to better his father's achievements by building a global empire, he could have remained permanently as 'Jamie', the polo-playing playboy, living off the interest of his father's billions.
In 1994, aged 27, Packer told journalist Peter FitzSimons that such an option would have destroyed him – first through hedonism, then through guilt.
He suggested he would "self-destruct" through "gambling, fast cars, alcohol, drugs, whatever it happens to be".
"If I sat back and decided to sell the product of my father and my grandfather's work, like a leech, you know I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror," he said.
James and his late father Kerry Packer. Getty
Many businesspeople say Packer has an extraordinary mind, is brilliant with numbers and astute at picking market trends.
He was quick to understand the potential of both the internet and China's rising middle class.
But the tragedy is that his mental illness frequently impairs his judgement.
"James has a decision-making process that is reflective of his mood at the time," one told Kitney.
"Excessive optimism means overpaying and excessive pessimism means selling at the wrong time. Both are bad decisions."
The decision to sell his Macau gaming interests is the one that plagues Packer's mind. "Macau is so heartbreaking because I lost my reputation, and serious people treat me differently," he told Kitney.
"This time I've lost my reputation globally. I'm not sure how easy it is to get it back a fourth time. I'm really not sure."
Yet Packer's friends worry less about his comeback as a tycoon, more about his comeback as a happy, stable human being.
Close friends such as 2GB radio host Alan Jones and businessman Lloyd Williams have urged Packer to come home to his real friends and family.
Kennett agrees that Packer has isolated himself from the people he can trust.
"He has put around himself people who he pays a fortune to," he tells The Weekly. "They aren't the people he needs."
WATCH BELOW: Mariah Carey talks about her breakup with James Packer. Story continues after video.
But Packer has a complicated, love-hate relationship with Sydney, admitting that he is "scared" of the emerald city and fears he is not tough enough to cope with the scrutiny he endures here.
It is not known whether he will ever return to the city of his birth on a permanent basis, despite having purchased a $60 million penthouse at the top of the Barangaroo casino tower.
"You can understand why he would feel like that," says a friend.
"It's hard enough when he is in a small town in Italy and even in Aspen. You see people whispering, 'That's James Packer'. In Sydney, he cannot even go out for a cup of coffee without gossip columnists feasting with delight on his misery. He becomes a prisoner in his own enormous house.
"LA is pretty good, that's why his kids live there. There they are just regular rich kids at the school they are at. They are actually less famous than a lot of their classmates."
As he floats on the azure waters of the Mediterranean, Packer has a three-month reprieve from any big decisions – business and personal.
It's a fair bet he'll spend the summer working on his health and continuing to try to rekindle relationships with the movers and shakers who flock to the south of France each year. Then again he could hide himself away, on board Mischief, compulsively surfing television channels.
That's the thing with Packer. He's so hard to predict.
The July issue of The Australian Women's Weekly is on sale now. AWW

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