STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Swedes like to say that Elin Nordegren Woods, 29, embodies everything Swedish: humble, shy, discrete, independent, sporty, down to earth and liberal.
Nordegren’s marriage to Tiger Woods, however, has doomed her to a very un-Swedish fame. Here “Elin,” like Madonna, is known by one name only. And when Nordegren and Woods spent Christmas in northern Sweden several years ago, the Swedish press spent hours waiting in temperatures of -28 degrees Fahrenheit for a glimpse of them.
Now at the center of a tabloid swarm following Woods’ car accident outside their Florida home and subsequent admission of infidelity, Nordegren has purchased a home on a remote Swedish island. But will the Sweden that made her shy away from publicity in the first place give her the privacy she evidently craves?
Swedes attribute Nordegren’s level-headed nature and disdain for the limelight to her upbringing in a society based on social democracy and equality for all, including women. Few democratic countries have changed government fewer times than the Land of Vikings: The Social Democratic Party has ruled Sweden for 66 of the past 77 years.
Taxes here are among the world’s highest, offset by the world’s most generous welfare system. Sweden abolished the death penalty 1921, mandates five weeks vacation for all workers, made the firing of pregnant women illegal in 1945, established universal health care 1955 and mandated a maximum 40-hour work week in 1970. The state finances abortion until the 19th week of pregnancy, finances parental insurance, and guarantees 16 months paid parental leave from work of which two are dedicated to the father only. All education, including universities, is free.
Nordegren has remained true to her Swedish values. “The fact that the standard of living gap is more evident in the U.S. than in Sweden feels hard," she told the now-defunct website flickor.se following her move to Florida in 2000 to work as a nanny. "But there is much I appreciate with the U.S., as well. For example, the fascinating cities and the cheerful atmosphere.”
Nordegren has shunned the media, and her family and friends have supported this, refusing to make comments to the media. Until recently, she and Woods were not the focus of tabloid gossip. Discretion almost to the point of shyness is very Swedish. Bragging about money and fame is unacceptable. A 1933, Scandinavian novel about a small town established the informal "Jante Law," a 10-point rule on group behavior: "Don't think you're anyone special or better" is the message.
Swedish fashion icon and photographer Bingo Rimer, who knows Nordegren well, is one of very few friends who has talked to the media about her.
“She was very hesitant with Tiger to start with. It took a year until they became an item," Rimer told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. "She is a very good girl, and that was why Tiger was so extremely in love with her. I believe she felt a mental barrier because of his fame. She has never looked for any attention." She once even turned down a Vanity Fair interview and photo shoot, he said.
“Who would turn down Vanity Fair? Not me," Rimer said. "But Elin did. She is a strong woman with so much integrity. She never married Tiger because of fame.”
Nordegren was Rimer's model once, in 1999 when she was 20. He saw a picture of her on the internet and asked if she would be willing to be photographed. She ended up as the swimsuit cover girl of the Swedish men's fashion magazine, Cafe Sports.
"I called her and asked if I could shoot some pictures. She was not very positive, but she said yes, primarily to get some pictures for private use," Rimer said. "Elin is a fantastic girl: beautiful, smart, humble and very down to earth. Not a girl you can fool. She is smart and knows what she wants.”
Gender equality is important in Sweden, and many laws have been enacted to maintain women's independence. Housewives are rare and considered old-fashioned. When moving to Florida, Nordegren continued her studies toward a degree in child psychology in Orlando. She speaks only Swedish to her and Woods’ two children: Sam Alexis, born June 18, 2007, and Charlie Axel, born Feb. 8, 2009.
Elin’s father, Thomas Nordegren, 56, works as a host for Swedish Radio in Stockholm and worked in Washington from 2003 to 2007. He has always been protective of his daughter.
“The enormous publicity surrounding Tiger Woods is not uncomplicated," he told Aftonbladet. "But Elin is a very strong and independent girl who stands with both feet on the ground. I have taught my children to be independent and to decide over their own lives.”
Nordegren has a twin sister, Josefin, who works as a lawyer in London. When Josefin married Swedish engineer Daniel Loennborg this summer, Elin Nordegren attended the wedding and little Sam Alexis was the page. The twins’ brother, Axel Nordegren, 31, works at a bank in China and has studied Mandarin at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.
When Sweden’s leading tabloid ran the initial stories on Nov. 26 about Tiger Woods’ infidelity — headlined "Tiger cheated" — Swedish reaction was strong. A survey revealed that 82 percent of the Swedes thought the story should not have been published. That was one day before the 33-year-old golfer crashed his Cadillac SUV outside the couple’s Florida mansion and the tabloid storm engulfed Elin Nordegren.
Now Sweden’s top television channels, newspapers, sports magazines and radio are covering the scandal, while public relations experts are offering advice on how the couple should defuse it on primetime TV. It all must make her native land seem unfamiliar to the quintessential Swede.