Heather Mills was hailed for her courage after she lost a leg in a road accident but the media turned on her after she married Paul McCartney
She was branded a liar and vilified over her past but David Blake Knox saw a very different side to a fascinating woman
It was, you might say, a long and winding road that brought me and Gerry Ryan to our meeting with Heather Mills.
We had travelled to an isolated valley in the Austrian Tyrol. As we walked into our hotel, my first reaction was that we had come to the wrong place.
The bedrooms were Spartan, the food equally basic and outside the streets were dark, empty and silent. It was hard to believe that a woman who had received a multimillion divorce settlement, and who is allegedly consumed by the desire for self-publicity, would stay in such a backwater.
The next morning, we discovered the reason. Heather had come here to ski, and there was still snow on the high peaks that surrounded the village. She has been coming to this region for many years: before she lost one of her legs — and before she married Paul McCartney. Perhaps she also felt she would not be followed by the press.
In recent years, some of the pictures published of Heather Mills have been less than flattering. However, when she joined us in the hotel, it was obvious that she is extremely attractive.
Her blonde hair was brushed back in a new style, accentuating her clear blue eyes.
When she was 18, Heather's good looks helped her find work as a glamour model. “Back then, Page 3 girls were celebrities,” she told us.
“They were making records, and doing TV shows. Being a glamour model wasn't regarded as sleazy.” Eventually, Heather took part in an erotic photo shoot for a German “sex education” book.
“It wasn't porn,” she insisted. “I mean, if you like that sort of thing, then good luck to you.
“But the stuff I did was far too tame for anyone to call it porn.”
She was very persuasive, but Heather is thought by some to have lied about many details of her personal life. What seems reasonably certain is that her childhood was traumatic. Her father appears to have been unstable, and very demanding.
“He always expected me to be perfect,” she told us, “so that whatever I have done — be it skiing, or business, or charity — I have always aimed for perfection.”
Her father worked, with relative degrees of failure, in a variety of occupations. The family moved frequently, and Heather's schooling was disrupted.
When Heather was eight, she was sexually molested by a swimming pool attendant. When she was nine, her mother abandoned the home. Heather did not see or hear from her for two years.
During that period, she ran the Mills household, and supplemented the weekly budget by shoplifting. When Heather was 13, her father was imprisoned for fraud. Heather and her sister went to live with her mother, Beatrice, in London. She continued to shoplift, and to skip school. By the time Heather was 17, she had been convicted for theft, and was on police probation. When she was 19, she got married for the first time. It lasted little more than a year, during which time Heather had two ectopic pregnancies. After the last one, she travelled to Yugoslavia and formed a relationship with a Slovenian ski instructor.
She returned to England to tell her husband that their marriage was over. “I had realised I was married to the wrong man and, years later, I was proved right when he sold horrible stories about me to the press.” With characteristic impulsiveness and determination she returned to the Balkans.
Heather was about to find a cause that she could champion. Yugoslavia was beginning the bloody process of tearing itself apart, and Heather was greatly affected by the violence that she witnessed. Returning to England, she founded the Slovenian Crisis Centre. In 1992, she took part in a relief convoy to Croatia.
The following year, she became involved in the campaign to restrict the use of landmines. It has since been suggested that Heather was merely jumping on a bandwagon which was set rolling by Princess Diana.
“Diana was only involved in the landmines issue for eight months before she died,” Heather told us. “But, in that time, she managed to change public perception of the issue. She brought it to world attention.” Heather's own commitment predated Diana's by several years but, in the aftermath of her divorce from McCartney, she was informed by the Adopt-A-Minefield charity that her services were no longer required. Soon after her departure, the anti-landmine charity wound up its operations, claiming that it had “successfully concluded” its campaign.
It's hard to know what direction Heather's life might have taken if it had not been for her accident.
By August, 1993, she was back living in London. She had been dating a new boyfriend, but had decided to end that relationship. On the day that she intended to tell him, they went for a walk through Kensington Gardens. Then they heard the sound of approaching sirens. Two policemen flew past on powerful BMW motor bikes. Members of the Diplomatic Protection Squad, they were en route to an emergency call in Knightsbridge.
After they had passed, Heather stepped off the kerb to cross the road. She did not know there was a third police bike, a short distance behind the first two, racing towards her at high speed. She was hit full-on, and carried 25 metres down the road. Her boyfriend saw a running shoe lying in front of him on the road. As he looked down, he realised Heather's foot was still inside the shoe.
Somehow, Heather's left leg had become trapped by the bike's exhaust pipe, and been wrenched off. She had also sustained severe internal injuries — including multiple fractures of her pelvis. Heather was airlifted to hospital where her injured leg was amputated to six inches below the knee. She was just 25, but her modelling seemed to be over.
She was also advised that she was unlikely ever to have children and told that she would not be able to enjoy sex again. But Heather did not allow this accident to destroy her life and, ironically, the press played a big role in making that possible.
Her accident made front page news. Heather became the plucky Page 3 girl who had shown extraordinary courage. She turned down a disability allowance. She was filmed back on the ski slopes and set up a charity to help other amputees, including those injured in the Omagh bombing. “There was never a bad word written about me,” said Heather.
She appeared on a range of programmes. It was through TV that she came to meet Paul McCartney, when they both presented awards on a show in 1999. She didn't speak to McCartney that night, but she had caught his attention.
He contacted her later, saying he wanted to contribute to her charity, and, subsequently, gave her a £150,000 cheque. Within months, they had become an item. “He was very, very charming,” Heather told us, “and the most romantic man I had ever met.”
It could be argued that McCartney was still recovering from the loss of his first wife when he met Heather. Linda McCartney had been an unpopular figure with Beatles' fans but after her death, her image was rehabilitated.
Heather talked at length about Linda: “I have never been jealous of Linda. The more I found out about her, the more I got to admire her.”
Heather and Paul got married in 2002, in Ireland. On the eve of the wedding, Channel 4 broadcast a highly critical documentary about her. Soon afterwards, a newspaper (falsely) claimed that she was being investigated by the Charity Commission for suspected misuse of funds. Before long, jokes about her disability began to circulate on the internet. She was alleged to have made Paul dye his hair, and acquire new friends.
Heather claims she was mystified by what was happening. “I think it was because I had married a national icon, and they resented me for that. It was the press that had built me up. Now, they were determined to bring me down.”
Heather became pregnant: “I thought that I'd never be able to have a child of my own ... getting pregnant was a kind of miracle.” But even the birth of a daughter wasn't enough to assuage the growing press hostility.
The child was called after Heather's mother, but some journalists claimed that she had copied the name from Princess Beatrice. Heather was also blamed for Paul's attempt to change the order of song-writing credits in the Beatles' catalogue. In fact, this was a long-standing ambition of McCartney's, and he had first tried to alter the credits in 1976.
Eventually, McCartney published an open letter to the press, refuting many of the allegations made against his wife. But, by then, the marriage had begun to run into major difficulties.
“Paul used to describe us as the ‘odd couple’. He said we were odd because he was so much older than me, and because I had a disability. But Paul's age was never an issue for me, and I don't regard being an amputee as odd.”
Listening to her talk, I got the impression that they may have been mismatched from the start.
In commercial terms, Paul McCartney is the most successful musician and composer ever. After decades of world acclaim, it would be surprising if he had not become accustomed to getting his own way. Heather, on the other hand, was fiercely proud of her hard-won independence.
I could imagine that her single-mindedness might make her an exacting marriage partner.
What was less foreseeable was the storm of abuse that the divorce proceedings were to release. The Sun published photos of Heather naked in a series of provocative poses that came from the sex education book she had made years before, referring to them as her Gallery of Shame.
“This is the same paper that was still running ads for hardcore porn videos just a few pages away from my photos!” she said.
It seemed that Heather had become fair game. In one TV sketch, Charlotte Church portrayed Heather with “a touch of Dutch Elm disease” in her (supposedly) wooden leg. At a awards ceremony Jonathan Ross joked: “Heather Mills — what a f***ing liar! I wouldn't be surprised if she's actually got two legs.” The celebrity audience roared approval.
Heather tried to counter the adverse publicity. In an interview on GMTV she ranted, shouted and wept. She spoke of suicide, death threats and conspiracies. “Yes, I had a kind of meltdown on air. I had to read the lies that were written about me day-in, day-out. I wanted people to see what effect all of this was having on me.”
Since then, Heather has continued to use TV to connect directly with the public. Last year, she appeared on the US show Dancing with the Stars. More recently, she appeared on Dancing on Ice.
Before I met Heather Mills, I was tempted to think of her simply as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. I found her to be a more complex character than I had expected. She described herself as a “natural extremist”, and her behaviour can seem very volatile. She is very bright, but badly educated.
She is good company, with a lively sense of humour, but sometimes gives the impression of taking herself too seriously.
It is as if she made a Faustian pact with the media nearly 20 years ago. At first, she was widely praised for her courage, drive and passion.
Nowadays, she only seems to appear in the press when there is something negative to report. Whatever else the future holds for Heather, it is unlikely to be without more controversy.
Heather Mills talks to Gerry Ryan on Ryan Confidential, RTE 1, Thursday, 10.15pm