heather's new golden ambition
In a life of twists and turns that has included modelling, joining a relief convoy to a war zone, losing a limb in an road accident, and marriage and divorce with an ex-Beatle, Heather Mills could finally earn public affection if she wins gold at the 2014 Winter Paralympics, writes Emily Hourican
At the Leve-son Inquiry in February 2012, Heather Mills was composed, direct and to the point in giving evidence that her phone had been tapped and messages from her then-husband, Paul McCartney, listened to in the aftermath of a row. With her silver-blonde hair cut into a shining helmet, long medieval face and military-style top, she had a faint look of Joan of Arc, as painted by Ingres. It's an image Heather would heartily approve of. She has always seen herself as fearless in the face of opposition, outspoken champion of unpalatable truths, charging resolute into battle.
"The reason people have such extreme feelings about me is because I speak out and I speak the truth and they don't like it," she said a couple of years ago.
This view of herself – isolated, sometimes reviled, but indomitable – is one she has always clung to, since long before marriage to the Greatest Living Beatle, and even more so after that marriage finished. And although there are those who say her loudly defended version of the truth often deviates wildly from the bare facts as others know them, there is something about the sheer energy and determination Heather displays, through good times and bad, that is impressive.
These days, having put her difficult divorce from Paul firmly behind her, her ambitions are directed towards glory at the 2014 Winter Paralympics, where she hopes, at the age of 46, to win gold at disabled skiing. Her detractors will point out that money is the single greatest asset in a sport that requires plenty of it, and is therefore subject to far less competition than, say, running. And that, in a way, is the story of Heather Mills' life. Her considerable and very real achievements, personal and charitable, have somehow been lost, buried in the dust-storm kicked up by her personality.
A complex woman who has been depicted by the media first as a saint and a survivor, then as a nude model, escort, fantasist and exploiter, she has never been able to conquer her own instinct to lash out at those who don't subscribe to the Heather Mills Myth wholesale.
And so, after a sunny start, the contradictions in her story became too many; eventually Heather Mills was reduced to the sum of her fictions and bombastic decisions.
The rage that drove her to wrestle something impressive from a life that seemed set on an unpromising course, spilled over too frequently into narcissistic and scarcely credible rants against her opponents, "Certain journalists have written horrible things and then they've got cancer or they've had a tumour or they've died," she said a couple of years ago, thereby playing straight to the caricature of herself as harsh, blinkered and entirely self-regarding.
Nothing, however, is really that simple, certainly not Heather Mills. Like Barbara Amiel, wife of Conrad Black, who left home in her early teens and grew up rough – living a hand-to-mouth existence, sleeping in cellars and grim lodging houses, working nights in factories and drugstores, hanging with a rough crowd of Polish emigres and Canadian aboriginals – Heather seemed at one time destined to fall between the cracks of society, disappearing into the easy-come, easy-go world of lingerie models and party girls. Without academic qualifications or family support, her blonde good looks seemed to be her only capital and as such, prelude to the kind of story that so often has a nasty end. Except that behind the doe eyes and Eighties bouffant hair, was a personality that was direct, ambitious and grittily determined.
The hardships of Heather's childhood were perhaps less than she has made them out to be, but even so it is a fairly dismal tale.
In a piece she wrote for a newspaper in 2010 about her school days, Heather claimed: "I only got into trouble at school a couple of times – usually for beating up bullies. Even then, I hated injustice and unfairness. If I ever saw someone bullying another child, it enraged me and I'd get into a fight."
Later, in the same piece, she wrote: "The fact is, my childhood was 20 times worse than I've ever revealed, but I've not let on about everything in order to protect a few people. It may yet all come out one day."
The picture Heather has painted of her youth – abducted and sexually abused by a swimming coach, shoplifting food and clothes at her father's insistence, living rough in a cardboard box at 15 before joining a travelling circus, playing truant from school – has been repeatedly challenged, but the fundamental loneliness and lack of direction are beyond question.
Leaving school without qualifications, the obvious path for Heather, already pretty streetwise by the age of 17, was to see where her looks and personality could take her. She worked in nightclubs, a casino, did some modelling – mostly swimwear and underwear shoots, as well as posing with a male model for a series of photos to illustrate a German sex manual, The Joy of Love – and veered towards rich boyfriends.
Whether she was or wasn't an integral part of a reckless scene that some say she was in her early modelling years, those were hedonistic days of beach parties, yachts drifting around the Mediterranean and luxurious hotel suites one day, followed by weeks of living out of black plastic bags and sleeping on friends' sofas. But those who claim to have known her then say that Heather was always different. She drank only very little, didn't do drugs, went to the gym obsessively and generally appeared to have a plan way beyond the simple enjoyment of an opportunistic moment.
She also had considerable sex appeal. A photographer who worked with her in those days later said, "she stood out. She had a sensational figure but also a potent sexual aura which she was not ashamed to use". Ultimately, Heather had no truck with life on the sidelines. She could see all too clearly, from the examples around her, the uncertainty of such a career. She wanted her own money, not wads of cash handed to her on a whim, and she wanted status. She married an ex-boyfriend, Alfie Karmal, who has claimed he paid for her breast enhancement and liposuction.
"Heather is the kind of woman who can take you to the most incredible highs and then to the lowest of the lows. It's famine or feast – there's no middle ground," he said of her some years ago.
Perhaps if Heather had managed to carry a baby full-term, things could have been different in her first marriage, but two ectopic pregnancies, after an earlier abortion, left her devastated and disheartened. She fell in love with her Croatian ski instructor, Milos, and moved in with him in very short order. According to Alfie, she came back from the holiday on a Saturday, packed her things and left again, for good, on the Monday, smashing a glass panel in the front door and scratching the wallpaper all down the stairs in her haste to get out.
The Balkans conflict erupted almost at the same time as Heather's affair with Milos, and here she first began to demonstrate the dogged and humane qualities that are part of her best self. She badgered news editors in London constantly, trying to get them to cover a war in which they had zero interest. She failed to engage them, but refused to give up. Instead, she decided on direct action, joining a relief convoy that was transporting food, clothes and medical equipment to those in need. It was a journey she would take several times, seeing sights that nothing in her life could have prepared her for.
The convoys skirted around landmines which were deliberately planned to maim rather than kill outright, drove past desecrated graveyards and churches, burned-out villages, past groups of traumatised, homeless children and elderly people – never men or women in their prime – and groups of amputees. She saw severed limbs discarded by a roadside, and learned a little about the devastation to families of a mutilated child or parent. She was so profoundly moved by these things that she vowed to help rid the world of landmines any way she could. The truly devastating irony, of course, is that soon she was to understand far more about the trauma of losing a limb.
The 1993 motor accident that left Heather without much of her leg was a kind of deus ex machina in her life, and catapulted her on to a far faster track. To say it was a good thing is clearly ridiculous, but it certainly moved things up a gear.
By the time she was hit at high speed, by a police motorbike responding to an emergency call, Heather had reached something of a dead end. Her modelling career was clearly never going to take off the way she wanted it to, her relationship with the Croatian ski instructor was over, and her charity work still very small-scale. Doors were gradually closing.
By the time Heather met Paul McCartney, six years after her accident, she had written a book, Out on a Limb, about her life thus far. She had established the Heather Mills Health Trust, delivering prosthetic limbs to those in need, made a documentary about her work, received an award from the Croatian government and an honourary doctorate from the Open University.
The night they met, at the Pride of Britain Awards, Heather presented an award to a young girl who had lost both legs through meningitis, and delivered a passionate appeal for help and funds. McCartney, on his first public event since the death of his wife Linda, was clearly instantly smitten. "Who's that?" he asked, according to Piers Morgan, adding "She's quite a girl, isn't she?" when told. Heather was looking "very buxom and sexy in a tight top", Morgan recalled, and persuaded McCartney to donate to her trust.
Almost immediately, he began courting her. There were 25 years between them, he was a man still clearly grieving his first wife, whereas she always said she wasn't much of a Beatles fan, and joked that, "John's the one with all the talent and Paul's the window dressing". And yet, two years later, they were engaged. Rumours started up immediately that Heather had forced the pace, delivering him an ultimatum – marriage or nothing – but there is no doubt that Paul was enthralled by her in those early days.
And no doubt, either, as to the scale of her achievement in life. Women who live by their wits most often find themselves circumscribed by their own limitations and society's eager connivance; Heather accepted no such limitations. Whatever he found in his relationship with her was clearly something new and exciting. He was deaf to the protests of his three grown-up children, still devastated at their mother's loss, and deeply unwilling to see Heather take her place. Leaked stories of a rift, especially with Stella, got so bad that Paul had to issue denials and insistences that theirs was a happy and united family.
And that was where the world began to turn against Heather Mills. Paul's millions of fans feel deeply protective of him, never more so than after Linda's death, when he was so clearly lost and grieving. The intimations that Heather, for all her charity work and brave attitude to life, was manipulating and bossing him, began a train of doubt that then gained unstoppable momentum with the steady drip of rumours about her past.
Even the birth of their daughter, Beatrice Milly, in 2003 – an event that should have inspired celebration, given the medical odds stacked against it – brought no warmth towards her. Heather has always claimed kinship with Yoko Ono, loathed by fans devastated at the break-up of the Beatles, but the comparison is flawed. Yoko was always a cipher, largely unknown to the public. With Heather, the public felt they knew her all too well.
Heather refused to do what the wives of very rich men are expected to. Instead of drifting off into a rarefied world of exclusive charity dos and ring-fenced philanthropic endeavour, she continued to front her own charity, and took on a very visible campaign against animal cruelty and meat-eating. It may have been motivated by the ever-present spirit of Linda, but Heather took to it with her usual determination and panache. However, she was always barely a step ahead of a tide of seamy revelations about her years as a model and as the marriage ran into trouble, the stories increased. The numbers of people willing to swear that Heather had lied and embellished her past grew.
The divorce was bitter in the extreme, permanently damaging the discreet, almost aloof aura around Paul McCartney. Heather, of course, had far less to lose. He hired celebrity divorce lawyer Fiona Shackleton, Nigella Lawson's cousin, while Heather, with her usual misguided panache, decided to represent herself. She accused Paul of drinking too much, smoking cannabis, violence, including stabbing her with a broken wine glass and pushing her into a bathtub when she was pregnant. She claimed he was hiding his assets and asked for £125m. In the end, she got just under £25m, which so incensed her that she poured a jug of water over Fiona Shackleton's head, and shouted "You're a bitch! You're a traitor to your sex! How could you do this to another woman?" The judge, summing up, described Heather as a "kindly person" who argued her case with a "steely, yet courteous, determination", but concluded that much of her evidence was, "not just inconsistent and inaccurate but also less than candid". It could have stood for a verdict on her life so far.
Recently, Paul was asked whether the wedding was one of his worst decisions in the last decade, to which he answered shortly that it was a "prime contender", seeming to view it as a bizarre anomaly, an enchantment almost; but short-lived. Heather, in the years since, has tried on various roles for herself. The anger that had so usefully fuelled her landmine crusade and upward trajectory through life seemed to be directed entirely at the media and public, who dared to question her, to not esteem her as she felt she should be esteemed. Paranoid insistences that "huge powers" were out to destroy her (although she maintains she has always retained her affection for Paul himself), went hand-in-hand with emergency calls to police over suspected kidnap plots, to the point where she was criticised for crying wolf and placing an unsustainable burden on the forces.
Still determined, she opened a vegan restaurant in Brighton, which happily doubled as a shop window for her soy-based meat substitute range, and tackled animals' rights issues. PETA may have discontinued their association with her when Paul McCartney's daughter, Mary, refused to take photographs for them as long as Heather remained formally involved, but she has continued the fight, recently exposing the cruelties of intensive pig breeding. "Heather's charity work as Patron and as an Ambassador for the global campaign [No More Landmines] has helped raise over $18.5m to date, funding clearance of over 21 million square metres of mine-filled land and benefiting more than 400,000 people," claims her website.
But acceptance was an uphill battle. Food critics panned the restaurant, a stint on Dancing With the Stars in the US was greeted with only muted respect, while an appearance on ITV's Dancing on Ice didn't yield much in the way of affection either, despite her evident physical bravery. Her relationship with snooker player Jamie Walker, six years younger than her, was mocked.
Somewhere in the last few years, Heather's focus shifted, away from her own rehabilitation and the shrill insistence on her persecution, and towards a new, more worthy goal, one that she is pursuing with typical determination and grit. An Olympic gold medal. Several nasty accidents, including a fractured shoulder, have held her back, along with difficulties managing her prosthetic leg on skis, but each setback and physical trauma seems only to harden her resolve; finally, this is an objective worthy of her energy. If she can succeed, and bring home gold for the UK, she may well find that the very thing that has so long eluded her – public approbation – is finally given, spontaneously and with generosity.