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She’s David Cameron’s new tsar and this month enters the House of Lords. Stefanie Marsh meets the bra boss who became Baroness Mone of Mayfair

A blonde, divorced Scottish woman with a world-famous cleavage is about to join the House of Lords and every last person in Britain seems to have it in for her. But Michelle Mone – or Baroness Mone of Mayfair, as she will be known – is surely everything that a functioning democracy ought to be proud of. My Fight to the Top – the blood, sweat and tear-saturated autobiography she published this March – details her rise from the lowest ranks of squalid poverty in Glasgow’s East End to here, a London pad with a large balcony overlooking the Thames. She’s already designed her coat of arms: a Scottish deer and a labrador – in memory of Ozzie, the family’s much loved dog, which died last year.

This morning Michelle Mone, 44, is done up to the nines but rather stiff when I first meet her. I can understand why. The tabloids oohed and aahed all over her in the years she built Ultimo, her bra company, into a global brand from scratch. But now that David Cameron has unexpectedly fast-tracked her to the very apex of the British establishment, a shiver of what one might interpret as stricken horror seems to be passing down the spines of members of that elite club: posh Dave has gone all weak-kneed, is the assumption, under the steady gaze of this newly minted bra boss. There’s the view, also, that she’s going to make a mockery, just by being there, of the Upper House.

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And it’s for these reasons that, since Cameron’s announcement in August, the muckrakers have been working overtime. She’s a fibber, they allege, prone to exaggerate the degree of both her own achievements and the size of her company’s profits; she’s a PR machine on steroids; she made sure that Ultimo benefited from a “morally questionable” tax avoidance arrangement; the life peerage is a pay-off – for having been one of the tiny handful of famous Scots to come out so vocally against Scottish independence in the run-up to the referendum earlier this year. Plus, Rod Stewart called her “a manipulative cow”. That last bit is true.

Proof that her critics were right, they said, came last month in the form of a tweet. She’d been travelling in a tax-funded government Jaguar (which is out of character, as Mone is actually Bentley’s global ambassador), when she decided not only to drape her top on the car’s heater but to take a picture of it, along with the words, “The things you do … in Government car drying my travel top … love it so much. See you soon #Stockport #betheboss.” She’s since deleted the tweet.

She was in the car in the first place because of another Tory brainwave: shortly before she was announced as a life peer, Iain Duncan Smith announced that Mone was going to be the country’s new start-up tsar, with ten months to deliver her recommendations. Even the people who admire her fret that she’s joined a doomed political conga line.

Cameron seems to have made a habit of choosing glamorous women for high-profile shopkeeping roles that go nowhere, making Carol Vorderman a maths tsar, Tamara Mellon, the Jimmy Choo founder, a global trade ambassador, and Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham, an ambassador for small businesses.

Nothing much seems to have come of these vague roles. Mary Portas’s high-profile appointment as high street rejuvenator ended in a damp squib – one gets the impression that her recommendations were sidelined. Now it’s Mone’s turn to be put on a pedestal, and before long … discarded?

Douglas Anderson, who runs the GAP Group, a plant hire company, went public to say that Cameron had “lost his marbles”, elevating Mone to the House of Lords. He described her as a “small-time businesswoman” who’d done practically nothing to boost British employment. “Because she is flogging bras and knickers she gets PR way ahead of anything she should get,” he grumbled.

“I mean,” says Mone in her steady voice, when I read this quote out to her, “I don’t know who he is to begin with. I can’t stand people who say things when they have never met you and don’t know you and don’t know what investments you have, and everything else.” The House of Lords gig is a job, not a photo opportunity, she says. “I want to do really well in the House of Lords. I want to contribute. I’m going to go in there and learn the ropes and progress.”

Anderson’s is not the first slight that’s been thrown Mone’s way. “I would just say that, with me – I don’t know why – there has been a lot of jealousy and a lot of negative comments.” She’s not bothered. “That’s just life. I’m not one to sit with a box of tissues and cry myself to sleep.” It does seem to get under her skin, though. “The criticism – it’s as if I have robbed a bank.”

For the record, all she’s ever done is roll up her sleeves, and “work really, really hard”.

“I’ve never asked anyone for any favours. Never asked anyone for anything. And I can assure you it will be a brilliant review.” She delivers everything she says evenly, calmly, unblinkingly – she really can hold that gaze for a long time. “Just stare them in the eye. And stare at them. And stare at them,” was Grandpa Mone’s advice if ever little Michelle worried about having her pocket money stolen in one of the tenements where she grew up. “When they look away – you’ve won.”

Is it possible, in these explicit days, that the great and the good still find underwear unsettling? “Yes. I mean, if I was designing the pen that you’re holding now, I don’t think I would be getting as much flak as I am getting. But I’m not going to sit here and say poor me. I’ve courted the media for many years.”

She is four shots (coffee) into her morning, which, like every morning, began at 5.30, was built on a maximum of five hours of sleep, and kicked off with a gym session with her trainer – her goal is to achieve the personal fitness of a professional footballer (male). Her OBE insignia hangs framed in her hall. The open-plan lounge, where we’re sitting on an L-shaped sofa, has views of the river.

This is a clutter-free zone, thanks to Mone’s obsessive compulsive disorder. How is her OCD these days? She laughs but – “I’m going to tell you the truth: that cushion over there is annoying me a wee bit.” Which one? “The one lying on its back on the terrace,” she says. When Mone’s three children were growing up, “I would take out the pencil cases and put their pencils all the right way up. I’d get rid of the dirty rubbers and replace them with a batch of new ones.”

So many questions. Mone’s polite but coolly distant manner this morning makes me worry that she’ll shut me down when I ask them. Take the financial nose dive Ultimo experienced while she was still fully on board. She has since sold 80 per cent of the company and stepped down as chairman, but wasn’t the company in financial trouble since 2011?

“What is true,” she says – her laser-beam eyes are still on – “is that in the six to nine months before the divorce, my husband [with whom she set up and ran the business] was saying, ‘You need to be sectioned. You need to be locked up.’ And that had an effect on the business. Of course it did.

“Before that, the company was flying and then the divorce put it in a very difficult situation. It almost went under. It almost went bust – excuse the pun. It wasn’t being managed properly. The thing was a nightmare. And I fought my way to save the jobs and save the brand, and I did. And I did it with not that much time to go. Now it has 63,000 people. It’s part of MAS Holdings. Turnover is £1.4 billion; they are committed to turning it into a global brand.”

She describes herself as “very private”, a self-description that contrasts oddly with all the things we now know about her divorce, thanks to her autobiography. Unusually for a life peer, she’s written about how, in a fit of humiliation, she trashed her husband’s Porsche and put laxatives in his coffee the morning he was due to go to a public event.

Mone’s behaviour flared up after it emerged that Michael was having an affair with a member of his wife’s bra designing team, a woman Mone had hired. When Mone confronted her husband, he told her she was imagining things – hence the reference to being sectioned.

Shortly before her book was published, Michael muttered something to the effect that nothing in it was true. Mone says, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” Michael is getting married in two weeks, to the woman he still says he wasn’t having the affair with. Mone says she has proof that he was, having obtained it from a detective she’d hired.

She “wishes him well” now. They have three children. Michael Mone’s wedding will coincide with his ex wife’s taking her seat in the House of Lords, almost to the day. “I take no prisoners” – this is Mone describing to me her business MO. “I don’t let people mess me about. I don’t go looking for trouble, but if someone attacks me I make sure I win before I leave. Sorry for saying that. But that’s the truth. I never, ever lose.” By the way, she’s got a new boyfriend (lives abroad, identity is still under wraps): “I’ve never felt this way before.”

She’s made a lot of her rags to riches story. Mone was born in Glasgow’s East End, the daughter of a printer and a home help. Her brother died of spina bifida; her father was confined to a wheelchair. The family were close, but so poor that when little Michelle needed a wash, her mother had to take her to the public baths. But, to paraphrase her autobiography, there was always something special about Mone, even as a girl – her grandmother often said so: perhaps it was the poster of Richard Branson that the teenage Michelle pinned over her bed; perhaps it was the way, aged ten, she had two dozen children working for her once she’d monopolised the paper round.

She met Michael when she was 17. He was middle class. The two of them spent their nights fantasising about how to get rich. When Mone was 18, they had a child, then another one, then she got a job at Labatt brewers. “I am very, very, very competitive,” she says, meaning she wiped the floor with all of her colleagues. Unfortunately, Labatt found out that she’d fibbed about her qualifications. She was the best thing that had ever happened to the company’s Scottish marketing department (see autobiography). But they sacked her anyway.

Twenty-four and jobless, it occurred to Mone that she could never find a comfortable push-up bra. Then – she happened to be in Florida – she came across a squidgy silicone substance, “chicken fillets”, as they became known in the biz. It was her lightbulb moment. There she was, a completely unknown bra inventor, persuading Selfridges to give Ultimo – sounded classy and Italian – a whirl. Sales went through the roof on Day 1.

This was because Mone had hired a group of actors to picket the department store: they’d dressed up as plastic surgeons who’d lost their livelihood because of the Ultimo bras. The stunt was all over the news. And then America went nuts for the bras as well. There’d been an article in the New York Post, she says, stating that Julia Roberts owed her juicy cleavage in Erin Brockovich to an Ultimo bra. “Like Erin, I had to fight and learn not to take no for an answer,” Mone told journalists when they called her for a quote. The bras were a worldwide phenomenon (this is still Mone talking). Flat-chested women came up to her in the street to give thanks.

Her other love when growing up, besides Richard Branson, wasDynasty. She longed for that life, and when she and Michael hit the jackpot, she got it: spiral staircases, expensive cars, a house with a turret. Money went to her head. She became a diva, an alcoholic, fat, suicidal. Ultimo had taken over her life. She’d be lying in bed next to Michael at night, on her BlackBerry. Her marriage was falling apart; her OCD was rampant: she had four dishwashers installed in her home. A mark of her newfound happiness is that she gets by on just the one dishwasher these days.

Mone is recognised on the street because of another one of her publicity stunts. Four years ago, she found the perfect model for her new bra campaign: herself. “I was on a beach with [the model and Rod Stewart’s ex-wife] Rachel Hunter. She said, ‘Michelle, when you lose the weight, do a shoot to show women what can be done and encourage them’.”

She was at the time unhappy, a fact that she says was reflected by her weight. At Hunter’s words, her goal-orientated spirit went into overdive. She lost eight stone. She bought new teeth. The result was a metaphorphosis: sweet-faced pudgy entrepreneur turns into a blonde Elizabeth Hurley.

Photographs taken of the Mones from this period show a tanned, beach-blonde goddess, usually on a red carpet, wearing a camera-ready smile, an enormous cleavage and a lot of jewellery. Next to her is a man who looks like he’s been accidentally cut and pasted into the scene direct from a cosy evening of telly-watching in his front room. The man is Michael. They looked more natural together before Mone had her upgrade.

One can imagine that there are among Mone’s male critics a sizeable proportion who find themselves caught between drooling over her flashy looks and wanting to oust her from their universe – perhaps the two things are connected. Today she’s wearing Christian Louboutin wedge heels and a jumpsuit by Diane von Furstenberg, cut into a V as deep as it is wide: the Ultimo bra she’s wearing underneath ensures that you’d have to be blind to miss her cleavage. Yes, she’d wear this to work, she says. Sad tidings, however, for the codgers hoping to get an eyeful on October 12. “When it comes to the House of Lords, yeah, my wardrobe needs to change slightly.”

We’ve been speaking for an hour, and Mone has relaxed. She is showing flashes of humour, mainly when imitating the debates she often has about her career with her mother. The worm turned when she came out against Scottish independence. Anti-unionists hated her; she says it was the first time in Scotland she felt “unsafe”.

“My mother asked me, with the referendum, to stop talking about it publicly: ‘Stop! You’re getting death threats. For the sake of your family, stop, please.’ And I said, ‘Mum! I love what this country is all about. I love being Scottish. I love being British. Why should we after all these years split up? It’s bad for business.’ And I said, ‘Mum, no! I believe in it. And I’m not going to stop’.”

There were other reasons she moved to London: her son, Declan, has started university in the capital (he lives at his mum’s) and her business interests are better taken care of here – fake tan, fake jewellery, motivational speaking. There are, she says, a heap of board positions up for grabs.

And, of course, the advisory role. Did Cameron single her out for the job because she was a woman? “I’m sure he’s picked men as well. I don’t think it comes down to gender. It comes down to your skills set. And I’m not saying I’m wonderful, I’m Miss the-bee’s-knees – but I do have a skills set. I am talented. I do know what I’m talking about in the areas that I specialise in. So if people think I’m only getting it because I’ve got blonde hair and am wearing nice shoes and a nice outfit, I would just say to them, ‘Get in the real world’.”

Had she been the old Mone, “If I had turned up frumpy, there would be no trace of this. I’m no supermodel or glamour queen but I’m not the way I used to be, which is a size 22. I was quite frumpy then. If I was that person now, going into the House of Lords and everything else, would I be getting this much backlash? I don’t think I would.

“But, you know, I keep fit. I’m now a size 12. I look after myself. I do love glamorous things. I think the blonde hair has got a lot to do with it as well.”

Criticism never has the desired effect on her: it only makes her more determined to succeed, “because, I suppose, my whole life I’ve had to work hard and prove myself”.

She’s also been successful despite not having a single qualification. “I’ve always had the opinion it doesn’t matter where you’re from or whether you have a good education or a bad one. If you’ve got that determination, if you stick in there, you’ll do it. Have I had to stick in there more than someone that’s gone to Eton or whatever? Possibly.”

A few months ago, the costume designer on Erin Brockovich popped up – or, more likely, was hauled out by Mone-haters – and told the world that Julia Roberts wasn’t wearing an Ultimo bra in that film after all. Did Mone lie?

“It’s a very, very, very long time ago,” she says. “All I know about is the amount of samples that we sent to the wardrobe person, who we were told adjusted them to fit. Was I there when he did that? No. But it was all over the American press – that’s the reason I found out about it.”

Later, I look up the original American “news story”: Ultimo can give you breasts like Julia Roberts, it claims, but there’s no mention of Roberts wearing an Ultimo bra. It reads like a story written off the back of a press release. The kind of press release the PR department of a lingerie company might send out.

She’s raised three children. “I would say I’m a planner and everything was planned out to the minute. Their uniforms would get left out; the shoes would be polished at night; their school bags would be tidied out. Every day at school was like their first. It was like an army. Right?” The children even had “their KPIs growing up”. What are KPIs? “Key performance indicators,” she says. The concept amuses her but I’m 90 per cent certain she’s not joking.

It is a bore that she won’t say anything about any thoughts she might have had – and she says she’s already had loads – for her small business review. Nevertheless, an idea she’s had for improving diversity in the City hints at things to come. Employers obsess to their detriment about CVs, she says. “For example, HSBC – wouldn’t it be incredible if they were to have like an X Factor for people who wanted to come and work there?” The idea delights her. It’s clear that it’s been rattling around in her head for some time. “Simon Cowell started it for singing. Maybe I can start it for business.”

Mone’s mantra is “Get out of your comfort zone”. It’s why she did that lingerie shoot. It’s a mantra that, if inflicted on them by Mone, would likely terrify the brittle bankers and businessmen of the world, not to say this country’s politicians. “You know, if they got my CV – straight in the bin. I’ll tell you something: if I went to that open day I’d get straight through. That’s what I’d love to see, because I’m nothing on paper. In terms of qualifications. Absolutely nothing.”

You would have thought her parents would have been thrilled about their daughter’s House of Lords appointment, but the first thing her mother said – this is during one of the regular calls Mone has with her parents – was, “Can’t you change your mind?”

“We’re not used to this, right?” says Mone. “We’re from the East End of Glasgow. My mum and dad are scared. But why can’t someone come from where I’ve come from and be part of the House of Lords, be part of this country and what it stands for? Why?”

And it was her mother who told her to take down the tweet. She remembers their exchange: “‘You cannot dry your top in a government car! Get that down.’ ‘Mum!’ ‘Get it down.’ Then she hangs up. And, again, hindsight is a wonderful thing. I shouldn’t have removed it, because I said what I said and I’d say it again.

“My top was wet; we were laughing about it. I said, ‘How am I going to dry this?’” And so she put the air con on hot and dried it. “And I shouldn’t have done it. But for God’s sake, do we all have to be so doom and gloom? I was drying a top! OK, it was a government car – I’m sorry. Right? But I didn’t rob a bank.”

She’s not getting paid for the 50 days she’s taking out to draft her government review, she reminds me. She travels economy, even though you can only charge your laptop in first class, because everyone in government travels economy too, she says.

You have to hold yourself back a bit, as a businesswoman, she says. “Don’t get me wrong, but some of the amazing business guys out there – Lord Sugar, Sir Philip Green – if I were to say some of the things they say or do, I would be an absolute bitch. And they seem to get applauded for it.”

Rod Stewart, I say. Didn’t he describe you as a … I read out the words hesitantly, “manipulative cow”? The friction arose between the rocker and the bra designer when Mone hired Stewart’s ex wife, Rachel Hunter, to replace his girlfriend, Penny Lancaster, as the new face, and breasts, of Ultimo. She must have known what would happen?

“Yeah. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. I’m going to tell you as it is. And, yes, it was planned. Why was it planned? Because I was – phhhhwww” – she makes the sound of a jet taking off – “straight out there with the business. I would have done anything – nothing illegal or anthing – for that business.

“And at some point I almost died for the business, because it sucked me in so much that I took pills and almost ended it all because I couldn’t cope any more. I did it for the business. I did it for the team. I did it for the brand and I knew it was going to create lots of publicity.”

The campaign was “huge”, she is saying now. “It was all over the world. Do I feel bad about upsetting Rod? Yeah. I replaced his girlfriend with his ex wife. I didn’t create a crime.” This is exactly the kind of ruthless business tactic, she says, that men carry off and women aren’t supposed to. “It was a business decision. Would I do it again? Yeah.”

She had to buy her husband out of the business. “You couldn’t make it up: in a board meeting, food flying across the table.”

Being cheated on is terrible, she says. “I was her boss! Every minute of the day. It was bad.” I can’t imagine, I say, but Mone hasn’t finished. “And she lives in your guesthouse! And when you get in having been on the red eye, and coming in and seeing her sitting in your kitchen. With a bottle of red wine. Yes. It was tough.” She throws off the memory with a laugh. “I’m so over it now.”

Tax avoidance?

“I have not done anything wrong. I use a big accountancy firm in Scotland. They’ve looked after me for 12 years. I have checked with them since the divorce – ‘Have I done anything that I shouldn’t have done?’ ‘Michelle, no.’ And everyone knows my ex dealt with all the finance and dealt with all the lawyers. I was never, ever allowed to get involved in his side and he never got involved in my side.” They wouldn’t let her in to the House of Lords, she says, if they hadn’t checked her out.

“A Tory poster girl,” she’s been called. This surprises her. “I believe in what they’re doing. But when I don’t think they’re doing a good job, am I still going to agree with them? No. They don’t own me.”

It’s her maiden speech that’s worrying her. “It’s a huge thing. And it’s all, ‘My Lord, my – you can’t say ‘You.’ My ‘Fellow Lord’. I don’t want to screw up. I’ve been reading the manuals and I’m almost done.”

There aren’t many famous people who would own up to manual-reading so as to understand the archaic rules of etiquette in the Lords. I think most would pretend that they know these things.

“I never, ever, will lose,” she says, “and if I have to work ten times harder and put in more work than that person I will get past the finish line before them. And that’s the way I’ve always been. And I’m never going to change. I don’t work for the government. I’m doing this for free off my own back and it’s all new to me and I’m out of my comfort zone.”

It’s time for me to go. The glamourpuss has relaxed. She’s much easier going than she was two hours ago. It must have been all that fighting talk – you can see how fired up she gets about success. It’s a drive that seems to have a weirdly relaxing effect on her.

“I would love one day,” she says, “for the kids in Peckham and the East End of Glasgow to say, ‘Wow. If we can make it in business we can get in to the House of Lords, we can get an OBE.’ Because I was a complete write-off before I even started. Just because of where I was from and no education and no money.”

On October 12 she’ll doubtless reinvent herself again. Where will it end? “When I’m mentoring people,” she said earlier, “they start off with, ‘Oh, it’s my mum’s fault I’m overweight, or my dad’s fault I can’t get a job.’ I say, ‘Stop blaming everyone. You’re in charge. If you don’t want to be overweight there’s just one way of doing it – cut out the crap and go to the gym.’” It’s not impossible that David Cameron still has plans for Michelle Mone – does a job as Tory health or employment minister beckon?

Andy McGowan
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