'Every time they try to bring me down, I fly higher': Michelle Mone on bras, bust-ups and sizing up the Lords
It’s the ultimate reinvention – a teen model with no qualifications from a poor part of Glasgow who landed a seat in the House of Lords by way of a lingerie empire. Ever outspoken, Michelle Mone OBE talks divorce, forgiveness and world domination with Rachel Johnson – while guessing her bra size…
‘It’s time to be a good human being – no bitterness, no anger, no jealousy – and move on,' said Michelle Mone (DRESS, Carven, from Oxygen Boutique. RING, Monica Vinader. EARRINGS, Dinny Hall)
It has been a journey just to get to this point. Michelle Mone has changed the date and time of our meeting not once but five times.
She has demanded that someone from her office sits in on the interview (I refuse).
She has asked to see this article before it goes to print (I refuse) and, the next day, a smooth-sounding representative calls to ask me not to mention certain things that Michelle has said (I don’t refuse, but more on that later).
But now I’m sitting in The Connaught hotel in Mayfair waiting for the 44-year-old Ultimo lingerie founder with the looks of a Page Three curvy blonde ‘stunna’ to come down from her new perch in the House of Lords to join me.
Yes, Michelle Mone OBE is one of the so-called ‘brassy broads’ – including Karren Brady and Ann Summers chief Jacqueline Gold – to have been honoured or ennobled by David Cameron.
And we have lots to talk about: her new role as the Conservatives’ ‘small business tsar’ (she’s spent six months touring the country talking to aspiring entrepreneurs in areas of high unemployment); her new beau who lives in Barbados, and her speaking and mentoring business… My notebook is packed with questions.
‘The Erin Brockovich woman called me up and said, “Your story is better than mine",' said Michelle (JUMPSUIT, Maria Grachvogel)
A nice, well-spoken girl materialises from nowhere, introduces herself as Michelle’s PA and tells me that Michelle will be with me soon.
She checks the seating arrangements, then leaves. I go back to staring out of the window and enjoy the sight of Love Actually star Bill Nighy stalking into the hotel. Just behind him there’s a blonde in black hobbling in the same direction, her right leg encased in a grey plastic boot right up to the knee, leaning on the same PA’s arm.
It’s Michelle Mone. I immediately leap to my feet, already wanting to protect her.
She clanks into the conservatory, sits and places her leg – in tailored black trousers – in an elevated position and orders coffee.
When it arrives, she asks the waiter for one lump of brown sugar ‘for dips’, dunks it ritualistically into the liquid four times, and leaves it in a puddle in a saucer.
She explains that she broke her foot by tripping on an open manhole outside her Mayfair home and then went off by train (‘I was weeping… I was in such pain’) to Soho Farmhouse for a girlfriend’s birthday weekend. Only when the party was over 24 hours later did she take herself off to hospital.
Michelle – as she asks everyone to call her, with a lovely smile that reveals large white teeth and reaches melting hazel eyes – has evident ‘control issues’ judging by her treatment of one innocent sugar lump.
But after meeting her I have to wonder, in the nicest possible way, whether we – as in you and I, the small businesses of Britain and the Prime Minister – need the help of Baroness Mone of Mayfair OBE. Or does she need ours?
‘I train every day, do the plank for three minutes. Women, sadly, get bingo wings, and it runs in my family like you’ve no idea,' said Michelle (DRESS, Roksanda)
Michelle picks up her iPhone off the table to show me images from her YOU photo shoot – unretouched – and I go, ‘They’re bl***y stunning! How come you’ve got such a flat tummy?’
And she hauls herself to her feet, lifts her black shirt to show me her curvy brown stomach and belly button (an innie, I can reveal) and says, ‘I train every day, do the plank for three minutes. Women, sadly, get bingo wings, and it runs in my family like you’ve no idea.’
Phew. I’d forgotten that Michelle Mone was once a sobbing 18-stone lingerie tycoon until model Rachel Hunter told her to ‘treat her body like a business’.
She went away, lost eight stone and did a headline-grabbing underwear shoot, wearing Ultimo, of course.
My next thought, as I admired her tummy, was how the old codgers in the Lords were taking her arrival (one Tory peer told me that when the buxom bra baroness took her seat there were dry quips about her being ‘well supported’).
But first, a flashback for the few readers still unaware of Michelle’s unforgettable backstory.
Before she became a top businesswoman – plus model for her own brand, motivational speaker and peer of the realm – Michelle was a regular career girl and has made it big on her ownsome. Much of it – but not all – is in her gripping memoir My Fight to the Top.
Michelle attributes her struggle to men who want to bring down successful women; her setbacks to ‘the sort of things that happen to an independent woman at the top of her game' (BLAZER, Amanda Wakeley)
After reading it, I Instagrammed the cover and wrote, ‘Just read this in one sitting and I swear this is a Rocky-style, three-hanky movie only not about boxing, but bras.’
And it is. It’s equal parts dysfunctional and aspirational, a combination as powerful as a Glasgow kiss: the story of a poor girl in a rough area of the city, where the launderette is called ‘the steamy’, whose younger brother Duncan dies from spina bifida when she is eight and whose father is confined to a wheelchair following a spinal tumour when she is 15.
She promptly leaves school with no qualifications to support her family. Michelle works her socks off to better herself: does a paper round, models, breaks into the breweries business working for Labatt, meets and marries trainee financial adviser Michael Mone, becomes a mother at 20, invents a cleavage-enhancing bra, has two more children, builds a multinational business around the ‘chicken fillet’ bra, then endures a vicious divorce, tabloid hell, her weight balloons, she contemplates suicide – but she picks herself up, confronts her enemies and bounces back to the top with a new boyfriend, home and title of Baroness Mone of Mayfair.
See what I mean? It’s a rags-to-riches fairy tale, a bleedin’ Cinderella for The Jeremy Kyle Show.
And although the only things we have in common are three children, blonde hair and boobs, I loved her book, even the motivational messages such as, ‘If you’ve got passion, determination and a can-do attitude, nothing can stop you.’
When I tell her this, Michelle says, ‘The Erin Brockovich woman called me up [she means the campaigner, not Julia Roberts, who famously wore the Ultimo OMG Plunge Bra in the movie] and said, “Your story is better than mine.”’
Michelle is keen to look forward, not back, and is itching to tell me her big news.
Michelle modelling at 18. She left school with no qualifications to support her family
‘You’re getting married?’ I ask. (She has been papped with golf pro Stefan Soroka on Barbadian beaches. He works at the luxurious Sandy Lane resort in Barbados where Michelle holidays. Lady Mone has been ‘dividing her time’ between the UK and the Caribbean for the past few months.)
‘You’re having a baby?’
Then she tells me that after three years of wrangling over her former marital mansion in Glasgow, she is trying to buy Michael out and moving her parents in, ‘to make a home for them’.
Her eyes brim. She says she doesn’t talk about her new boyf, but she is so loved up she can’t stop herself.
‘Yeah, new relationship – I’m mega-happy, he’s an amazing guy,’ she says.
‘Stef has helped me sort out my path, my next chapter. We talk all the time, and he’s helped me do what’s best for my parents. I know I’ve courted publicity for the brand, but I’m actually very, very private.’
Then for her next reveal: ‘I’ve decided – which is a big, big thing – to forgive Michael for what he did. He’s the father of my kids.
'When I was on my own for three years, I was bitter. I think now it’s time to move on because I’ll see him at my children’s weddings.’
Michelle went through a hellish marriage and divorce with fights, private detectives – the works.
She and Michael split in 2011 after 19 years of marriage and last December Michael married former Ultimo designer Samantha Bunn, who Michelle fired in 2012 because she suspected an affair (Michael denied it).
Michelle with ex-husband Michael. 'When I was on my own for three years, I was bitter. I think now it’s time to move on because I’ll see him at my children’s weddings,' she said
‘It’s time to be a good human being – no bitterness, no anger, no jealousy – and move on.’
So, as a motivational speaker, what would be her line on divorce?
‘I would say just don’t be bitter. Get on with your new life and stay civil for the sake of the kids. I’m not at that stage yet, but I’m going that way now.’
And then it all comes out: how people say she’s running out of money – but, she asks, how can she be if she’s sold shares in Ultimo for millions?
She starts talking about a legal case she is embroiled in – only she shouldn’t be saying anything as I find out later when her assistant calls me.
And yet she has already tweeted business tips on what to do if someone is blackmailing you (‘do some digging on their background’, ‘keep your emails in order, it could save you £75k’).
I ask whether she thinks she has bad judgment. Her eyes widen.
‘Stefan said this last week, “You’re too trusting. You trust people straight away.” You think I would harden up in business, but I do trust people.’
I move on to politics, but she demurs, and explains that she was so traumatised by her role supporting David Cameron in the Scottish referendum (‘half of Scotland hates me’) and the tax credit vote – she voted for cuts – that she’s reluctant to talk about her views.
Michelle in Barbados with boyfriend Stef Soroka
When I ask about Brexit she shakes her head, which I find curious.
She does say that she admires the ‘Australian attitude’ to immigrants and concludes, ‘but at the end of the day, we’ve got to look after ourselves in our own country,’ so I suspect that she is an outie in that sense at least.
I also sense that she is finding the Lords an alien, if not hostile, environment and is still scarred from having the crucial tax-credit vote on her first day.
‘I was like a rabbit in the headlights and would have liked to have been there for the first and second reading, but I have learnt so much from it now,’ she reflects.
‘I didn’t even know where the toilets were, seriously; and my very first day in the House of Lords was, dring, dring, dring [she imitates the division bell], you have to go through and vote, and I’m like, what do you mean? What’s going on?’
Michelle made her maiden speech last month about barriers – including loneliness – to women becoming entrepreneurs.
She said giving it was ‘harder than any business I have ever started’ and told peers that she was worried she would not ‘fit in’ at the Lords.
She may be finding her feet there, but she talks a good game when it comes to her success. She claims to have ‘invented 17 inventions’, the latest being UTan, a fast-acting fake tan.
She also has a range of jewellery on QVC. Her party piece is being able to tell what cup size you are from one glance, like a corsetière from Rigby and Peller.
She tells me I am a 32DD. Which I am. I have to hand it to her.
Her operating principle is her father’s advice: ‘Don’t think that anyone’s better than you, because we’re all equal.’
Michelle made her maiden speech in the House of Lords last month about barriers – including loneliness – to women becoming entrepreneurs. She said giving it was ‘harder than any business I have ever started’
She has a meeting with a lawyer, but seems glowing and upbeat, so we finish up. I wish her luck with it and she shrugs.
‘Every time they try to bring me down, I fly higher, right?’
She attributes her struggle to men who want to bring down successful women; her setbacks to ‘the sort of things that happen to an independent woman at the top of her game’.
‘See, getting there, it’s hard, right? Staying there – it’s a fight every day.’
She gets up to leave, but not without an encore. She tells me that by the time you read this she’ll have sold off her final 20 per cent in Ultimo and once she’s done with launching ‘four new businesses in completely new industries that are bigger and better than anything I’ve done before’, she’s planning on going back to bras.
‘I will be coming back to the industry. I’ve been told that the likes of Debenhams, House of Fraser, Primark, QVC and Next will want to sign me exclusively and create a huge brand.
'I’ve had 18 months out of inventing and designing and I am ready to come back with a bang.’
As she limps off, she seems radiant. And I know why – Stefan.
‘This is the first time I’ve actually felt someone loves me; and he really, really does love me, and I love him.’
She has found a Prince Charming who is even closer to her heart than her beloved Ultimo.
I’m glad her epic, rags-to-riches story has a fairy-tale chapter, if not ending – and tell her that if nobody else buys her movie rights, then I will snap them up.
Michelle gets it off her chest
WHAT I DO BEFORE EXERCISE
Exercise. I believe that if you train for an hour a day you will have a healthy mind and body, which equals a healthy career.
MY LAST MEAL ON EARTH
Spicy chicken curry.
DREAM DINNER PARTY GUESTS
Mum, Dad, Nelson Mandela, Whitney Houston, Jack Nicholson, William Wallace, Winston Churchill.
IN MY HANDBAG
My passport (I am at an airport all the time), photos of my mum, dad and kids, a hairbrush, Chanel perfume, Mont Blanc pen and UT an facial cream.
IF I COULD BE ANYWHERE ON EARTH
I’d be with my granny in her old house. She taught me to dream and believe in myself.
I'M SURPRISINGLY GOOD AT
Doing the splits both ways.
MOST TREASURED ITEM
My spiritual glass paperweight that my Greek friend gave me. Since I’ve had it my personal life has flourished.
THE BRA THAT SUPPORTED MY MAIDEN SPEECH
It’s a new invention I have been working on since I left Ultimo. It’s so comfy you can wear it 24 hours (it was a long day; I didn’t give my speech till 7.30pm). I want to invent a bra that you can wear in bed.
I'D LIKE TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT ON
Nothing – so long as my family, Stefan and my friends know the truth, that’s all that matters.
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