From Studio 54 to the front line
Bianca Jagger epitomised Seventies glamour, but has evolved into a human rights activist. Barry Egan met her
ERSTWHILE trophy wives of rock stars are supposed to die in their sleep in a suite in Claridges, not in darkened woods in Eastern Europe staring down the barrel of an AK-16.
When the Serbian paramilitary pointed his assault rifle at her in the dead of night and ordered her out of the APC (armoured personnel carrier), Bianca Jagger thought she was about to die. "This is it," she said to herself.
"I feared that perhaps I would never see my daughter Jade or my family again," she says now.
The Nicaraguan had gone to Kosovo in 1998 with a BBC crew to make a film for BBC2's Newsnight to call for the indictment of Milosevic. "We went to Kosovo to document war crimes committed against the civilian population," she explains.
Late one evening, after filming in a ruined village where a terrible massacre had taken place, they were stopped by a special Serbian army unit close to Donji Prekaz as they boarded the APC.
Bianca and the crew were forced at gunpoint inside a shadowy military base that had large gates. "We were ordered to put our hands up and turn around and face their vehicle," she continues. Interrogated at length, they were finally released after the Serbs studied their film footage "over and over again".
Bianca Jagger had come close to death before, in 1981, as a part of a US Congressional Staff delegation to Honduras. US government-funded death squads from El Salvador had entered a UN refugee camp in Honduras and were abducting refugees.
She remembers: "They came into the refugee camp and rounded up about 30 or 40 men the youngest men. At that moment, we decided to follow them to try and rescue the refugees. All we had with us were cameras and we ran after them, shouting, 'If you kill those refugees, you have to kill us all'."
Miraculously, it worked. The death squad turned around with their rifles, left the refugees behind, "and went away".
It was the turning point of her life, because she understood "the importance of being a witness".
You have to admire Bianca Jagger. You expect her to be full of crap, the hippy poseur, the political pin-up on an ego trip around the world. She could so easily have lived the life of a fairytale princess ungoverned by financial restraints. The left wing's It Girl, she became a political activist and a humanitarian, championing Save the Children, Unicef and Amnesty International, among others.
Instead of schmoozing in the Met Bar with the glitteratti, Bianca campaigns for human rights. She witnessed the execution of Gary Graham at the Death House in Huntsville, Texas, in June 2000. She was confronted by a shocking reality."This was a man I had come to know as a person and firmly believe to be innocent."
It is difficult to make the leap between what Bianca Jagger is now and what she once represented. Even allowing for exaggeration, this woman epitomised 1970s glamour. Her best friends were Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. She was part of the Studio 54 milieu along with Capote, Jackie Onassis, Warren Beatty et al. There is a beautiful era-defining picture of Jackie O and Bianca talking in Liza Minnelli's dressing room. "No one knew anything about her, except that she had previously been Michael Caine's girlfriend in London," said Andy Warhol in his diaries. "Everyone wondered who she was and how she got Mick. People said that he would fly to Paris between concert dates in Germany just to see her for a few hours. She would tell him she couldn't cancel an appointment with her hairdresser. I guess after years of groupies, Mick liked being turned down for a hairdresser."
To this day, Ms Jagger has to continually deal with her ex-husband's presence, despite enjoying a career in her own right. The cynical take on Bianca Jagger as expounded by the Observer is that she "swapped Studio 54 for the United Nations, and traded Mick Jagger for Timothy McVeigh".
The more realistic perspective on Bianca Perez-Mora Macias is surely that, three decades on, she has earned her respect regardless of whether she was married to the Rolling Stone front man or the cleaner in the street.
Bianca doesn't want to talk about her former husband (they married on May 12, 1971; divorced 1979). "I have made a choice in my life," she says. "I find it very embarrassing when people trade on their former spouse or companion's fame. I wouldn't feel proud if I did that. I have never written a book about my life, even though I would like to write about my human rights work, because I have not found a way to deal with my personal life. I have never sold my private life away.
"It's respect," she continues. "Mick is respectful of me he doesn't go around giving interviews about his life with me. And I'm respectful of him. I try not to go around giving interviews about him. Even if I may have grievances in life, they are very personal matters, not to be revealed in interviews. One will always lose. When I'm older, or wiser, and can look back and reflect upon my life, and put it in the right context, I might. But for the time being, I will talk about my human rights work. Let Mick go on with his life and me go on with mine."
Their daughter Jade Jagger was born on October 21, 1971, and lives in Ibiza and in England with her two kids. Is she more like her mother or the Other Person?
"You can call him Mick," she laughs. "You don't have to call him the Other Person. I don't mind. Jade is a combination of both of us. She is very much her own person. She is a very talented, down-to-earth person, and a wonderful mother."
Asked what Jade thinks of her mother's occupation of globetrotting war-witness, Bianca admits her daughter probably thinks "it's a bit dangerous. She probably wants me to spend more time visiting her in Ibiza. But she is respectful of what I do."
Holding court in her suite in the sprawling penthouse of the Berkeley Court in Dublin, Bianca laughs when I ask her about the late Woodrow Wyatt's famous diary entry about her. In it, he enthused about a reunion with Bianca Jagger.
"She is an amazing girl," he wrote in 1992, "full of sexual vitality, which pours out at you. At one point she grasped my wrist and arm and got her sexuality on me. She was looking at me hard with her eyes. She must be like an octopus to go to bed with, wrapping her legs all around you."
Did Wyatt's description of your meeting amuse you?
"No," Bianca Jagger laughs, "because he was referring to someone else. It never happened. It wasn't me. It was Jerry Hall!"
Bianca was in New York on September 11. She was at LaGuardia Airport, about to board a flight to Washington for a press conference, when she heard the news. She went into a little café and watched in horror along with the rest of the world as the second plane crashed into the tower on TV.
"We all screamed at that moment when we saw the plane hit the tower," she remembers. She visited Ground Zero, talked to the firefighters and the rescue teams. Seeing the unity of these men and women who were willing to risk their lives gave her "a sense of what makes America such a strong country".
Situating Bianca Jagger at 51, you would have to remark not on her glittery past but on the tireless dedication she has applied to her work (her days with dying refugee babies). Nobody who puts their life at risk in Kosovo and South America is a fraud.
"I'm doing exactly what I want to do with my life," says the former party queen of New York. "I have made a commitment to make a difference in whatever way I can."
Ms Jagger was in Dublin to support the Unicef relief project Turning Wine into Water. "Unicef has been working inside Afghanistan for the last 15 years with local personnel. At the moment, more than seven million people inside Afghanistan are depending on humanitarian aid to survive. They suffered the worst drought in 30 years, they were living in abject poverty before the war. If food, shelter, clothing and water supplies are not brought in, up to two million people could die.
"We need to act swiftly. The convoys need to go in. The humanitarian organisations are pleading for a pause in the war to allow humanitarian convoys to be allowed to travel inside Afghanistan."
* For information, or to make a donation, call 01-8783000, or send a cheque to Turning Wine into Water, Unicef Ireland, 28 Lr Ormond Quay, Dublin 1.