I, Spy: Diary of a Girl Gumshoe

 First published in Harper’s Bazaar, September 1, 1999

The trail begins with an e-mail from mission control. This is the 90s, after all. “Find me a spy,” says the editor, who’s obviously totally taken by the story of Australian Jean-Philippe Wispelaere’s bungled attempts at espionage. The guy was trying to sell American military secrets to pay for his “concerns, involving the females…”

Cool, I think, flicking through my wardrobe for an evening gown and trying to decide which pair of stilettos would best conceal a deadly weapon, invisible ink and my favourite red lipstick. I swoon at the thought of masterful hands and bedroom eyes, and practise my pout in the bathroom mirror… will I be Catherine Banning, the brilliant female investigator played by Rene Russo in the remake of the ultra-stylish The Thomas Crown Affair?

Then I re-read the message. She wants a female spy. I put away the stilettos and mail her back: I’m on the case. Like all smart investigators, I head straight for the Yellow Pages, and look under S: nothing. I call my friends: they don’t know any spies. My next stop is the Action section at the video shop. I cancel dinner and retire to the sofa.

“I thought you had to work tonight,” says my friend, eyebrow raised. I hide the popcorn behind my back. “I’m on a spy-hunt. It’s research.”

Sexpot spies, who loosen the ties, and tongues, of diplomats and military intelligence with truth serum, or a glimpse of their killer thighs, have been the stuff of film, fiction and fantasy since early this century. Countless are the vixen our hero Bond wrestles (into bed, in most cases) in his international espionage exploits. Glamorous, seductive and ruthless, these celluloid spy girls can be traced back to the original Mata Hari, a dancer executed by the French for espionage before the end of World War 1.

Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, daughter of a Dutch hat-maker, Mata Hari invented an exotic background for herself and divorced her errant husband, before moving to Paris where she titillated the movers and shakers of the Belle Epoque with her high-class striptease, and slept her way up the military ladder of several warring countries. Accused of revealing Allied secrets to the Germans, Mata Hari, who denied the charges against her, claiming she lived only for “love and pleasure”, was sentenced to death and, according to legend, refused both blindfold and tether, blowing a kiss to her executioners as they opened fire.

More than 80 years after her death, the intrigue remains. Was Mata Hari a real spy or was she punished for her vanity and promiscuity, as she claimed at her trial: “Harlot, yes, but traitoress, never!” A report released this year by the British intelligence service, M15, named about two dozen of Mata Hari’s lovers, fanning a legend that has long inflamed the artistic imagination. Greta Garbo starred in a 1932 film titled, simply, Mata Hari, and readers of the Sexton Blake saga of spy novels, popular in the 1930s and 40s went weak in the knees over the sultry Vali Mata-Vali “dressed in a jacket and harem pantaloons of heavy silk… her hair, black as a moonless night”.

More recently, seductive spy-assassin Nikita, from French director Luc Besson’s stylish thriller, La Femme Nikita, was a muse undeniably in the Mata Hari mould. Besson’s film spawned a Hollywood remake, The Assassin, and a hit television series starring a Nikita more Baywatch-blonde and buxom, than Besson’s chic Gallic chick. Sex and spying seem to go together like… gin and vermouth?

International man of mystery Frank Monte, whose company, Monte Investigation Group, specialises in corporate espionage, has a bevy of spy-babes working under cover in high places from his hometown, Sydney, to New York, LA and London.

According to Monte, who has been training and employing women spies since the 1970s, men fall for the honey trap every time. “Flash a bit of cleavage at a man and intelligence goes out the door,” he says. Monte insists his clients have included billionaire Aristotle Onassis, actors Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, designer Gianni Versace and corporations such as Coca Cola, Lloyds of London, even the ANZ Bank. His web site features blondes in spray-on black dresses and gold jewellery; swimming pools; sports cars and Monte, wearing a white tuxedo, cigar in hand.

He says the Bond life is not a fiction. “I get my girls used to French champagne and caviar. They fly first class. My top girl drives a brand new Ferrari.” Cleavage aside, what’s she like, this elusive girl spy? “Smart, greedy, and elitist. Some are a bit bitter and twisted. Others just want the money.”

Can I talk to her? “They’re spies,” he says. “They don’t trust anyone and they don’t talk to the press.”



I find ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) in the phone book. I’m starting to think this spy caper isn’t as difficult as it’s cracked up to be.

The voice on the answer machine, deep and accented, does not disappoint. I leave a message in the sultriest tone I can manage. “Call me.”

ASIO is no stranger to the power of feminine wiles in espionage. In the early 1960s, when Australia was still in the grip of the Cold War spy-paranoia triggered by the Petrov Affair, ASIO was reported to employ “a small, select group of young women used for counter-espionage… The women are highly intelligent, can speak several languages and dress well’.

One such female agent was Englishwoman, Kay Marshall, code-named “Sylvia”, who was used by ASIO to draw out Soviet diplomat and spy, Ivan Skripov. A classic double agent, Marshall befriended Skripov, who believed she was working for the Soviet government, and taught her secret writing and other tricks of the trade.

Skripov was thrown out of the country in 1963 after he attempted to use Marshall to courier a high-tech code transmitter, a sophisticated espionage weapon, to another contact in Australia. ASIO still employs women, under the Public Service policy of equal opportunity. But when it comes to “sexpionage” or “bedroom espionage” as it is known in Moscow, where women are still trained in the art of sexual entrapment, ASIO’s lips are firmly sealed.



Back to the Yellow Pages. Where before there were no spies, there are hundreds of private investigators. The one that stands out, amid four densely printed pages of men with moustaches and trench coats, is Lipstick Investigations, a girlie-pink love heart. “Be sure of your man,” says the advertisement.

It is cold the night I meet my first gumshoe. In a building in the centre of Sydney, emptied of its business hours tenants, I take the elevator to the fifth floor, where I walk down a long corridor. It’s so quiet I can hear my shoes squeak. Past the closed doors of management and business consultancies; a psychologist; then Lipstick. Bingo. I knock in code: two loud, one quiet, and hold my breath. Helen Murphy answers the door in bare feet (red toenails) and shakes my hand. She tugs at her hair, blonde with an inch of black at the roots, while she makes me instant coffee, with whitener. “I can’t even keep a hairdresser’s appointment – my phone’s switched on 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she tells me.

Murphy is the kind of spy who looks through keyholes. Lipstick’s sphere is strictly domestic, mainly checking out cheating husbands, and business is booming, with an average of five to ten new jobs coming in every week. In her three years in the trade, Murphy has gone from being a sole operator, to the head of a thriving agency, which now contracts 12 other operatives, half of whom are women.

“It’s true that women do a better job than men. Not only are they less likely to raise suspicions but they are more intuitive and more involved emotionally.”

Surveillance is the essence of the job. Most of the women (and the occasional man) that come to Lipstick for help, want evidence to confirm or scotch their suspicion that their partner is having an affair. Armed with tiny video cameras that fit into a glasses case or handbag, Lipstick’s spies follow and film at a safe distance. They infiltrate the suspect’s workplace, set up hidden cameras in his house, even tail him overseas.

She gets some strange requests. “Some guy wanted to courier me his wife’s lingerie so we could test it for semen stains,” she says. Lipstick’s Checkmate service has decoys approach a man at his favourite bar, or over the Stairmaster at the gym, to see if he’ll take the flesh-bait. Will he flirt? Will he buy Champagne? Will he go as far as having sex? These are the questions Murphy’s clients pay to have answered. These set-ups can last as little as a few hours, or as long as three months. Good liars and actresses only need apply.

An adrenaline junkie at heart, Murphy admits there is an element of danger to the job. “Your heart’s always pumping,” she says, describing a night spent waiting in a dark alley with the sound of gunshots in the distance. But she says the glamour is all part of the act. “We hire sports cars sometimes and get dressed up but you’re always aware that you’re on a job, so you can’t just relax and enjoy the Champagne.” No Mata Hari here, Murphy says she despises infidelity. “I believe there should be a law against it. It’s a crime of the heart,” she says. “That’s why I started this in the first place. I was at uni, watching my girlfriends fall apart because their boyfriends and husbands were cheating on them, and I wanted to catch them out because they were getting away with it. That really pissed me off.” Depressed at times, by what she sees, Murphy says: “I love my job but it’s tough, and it definitely affects my personal life. I’m absolutely distrusting and I’m always looking over my shoulder.”



Message on my voice mail: Ian from ASIO who regrets to inform me that due to the clandestine nature of the organisation’s work he is unable to provide me with names, numbers, addresses, secret handshakes or invisible ink.

I notice a woman in a trench coat reading a newspaper across the road from my house. The sun is shining. Haven’t I seen her somewhere before?

Peter Simpson, manager of the Association of Australian Investigators, says there are 50 or 60 licensed female investigators on his books, and more than 1500 males. “Very few women want to sit around doing surveillance work,” he says.

Kathleen Duffy does. For the past two years, she has worked for Sydney agency, Warren Lee and Associates, where she was originally employed as a secretary. Lee employs more than 30 investigators, of which only three are women, “but we’re clearly the favourites,” she says. “The men are too gung-ho, they get caught more often.”

Duffy is far from the caviar-and-Ferrari line of work. She gets up at 5am most days (“winter mornings are the worst part of the job”), and drives out to the suburbs to spy on would-be insurance fraudsters, leaping out of their wheelchairs for a kick of the football with the children. “It’s not Hollywood. I just grunge around in my tracksuit pants most of the time. I’m lucky to have time for a shower before work.”



I fall asleep reading Australian poet Dorothy Porter’s 256-page poem, The Monkey’s Mask, in which streetwise dyke PI Jill Fitzpatrick, has a steamy affair with a murder suspect.

I wake up to the phone ringing. It’s my friend. “How’s the spy hunt going,” she says. Before I can answer her there is interference on the line. A faint, but unmistakable beeping sound. My heart stops. I feel the blood drain from my head. I think I am going to be sick. “Hang on a sec. Call waiting”, says my friend.

Lying down on the ground in the recovery position, listening to an elevator version of ‘Greensleeves’, I decide I’m not cut out for the spy life after all.

I never much liked martinis anyway.