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Michelle Mone: The First Lady of Lingerie laid bare

Ultimo tycoon Michelle Mone tells of her rise from poverty, how she coped with a marriage split and the long journey to conquering her demons

By Barry Egan

Published 03/10/2015

Michelle Mone
Michelle Mone
Michelle Mone and ex-husband Michael

Multi-millionaire Glasgow-born tycoon Michelle Mone, aka The First Lady of Lingerie, is well-known for her wit. She was once asked about two of the most famous blondes who modelled for her Ultimo bras brand back in the day: Rachel Hunter and Penny Lancaster.

"Rachel, who has been a supermodel since she was 16 would be the Ronaldo of Manchester United," she answered. "Penny, who has only been modelling for a few years, would be a player with Falkirk Football Club."

Michelle says now that she "really regrets saying that" but she was very young ("I was 29") and perhaps a touch naive. In truth, she wasn't naive at all. It was a stroke of international marketing genius: to replace Penny Lancaster, wife of Rod Stewart, in 2004 as the global face of Michelle's bra brand Ultimo with ex-wife of Rod, Rachel Hunter.

Indeed Rod called Michelle "a manipulative cow," adding that he hoped she "chokes on her profits."

"The contract had expired," Michelle says over breakfast in a Dublin hotel. "So it wasn't as if I sacked her (Penny). Then I knew I had to find a new face (for Ultimo) and I knew Rachel and she was brilliant. It went global. At the end of the day, Rod is a legend and I would never say a bad word about him. And back then I was very young. I didn't manage the situation as well as I should have."

"I probably deserved it," Michelle says now meaning the disparaging description of manipulative moo-cow.

In 1996, so the story goes, Michelle was at a dinner dance, wearing a cleavage-enhancing brassiere but one that wasn't particularly agreeable to wear.

Michelle thought that she could design a bra that was more comfortable. In 1999, she launched Ultimo and the company MJM International. The seamstress's daughter from the tenement went on to become extraordinarily wealthy.

Being successful on an international level with such renowned leadership qualities - does the fire in her belly burn less brightly than it did when she started off?

"No. Because, I wake up every single morning with the fear of failure. Towards the end of the relationship, when things were bad, I would imagine hearing my ex-husband whispering in my ear: 'You're going to end up back in the ghetto where I rescued you from.'

"I don't regard the East End of Glasgow as the ghetto," she continues. "I think they're amazing people. I suppose when you're on your own you work harder. I could give up tomorrow and actually be alright for the rest of my life, but you never know what's going to happen. You know, if big banks can go down, anything can happen to me."

The 43-year-old is a ballsy blonde character out of a Jackie Collins' novel. She drives a top-of-the-range Bentley. It was far from luxury cars, however, that my brekkie companion was brought up.

As The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr in 2010 described Michelle - and her rise: Growing up "penniless in Glasgow and left school at 15. Today, the bra entrepreneur is worth £50m, advises the cabinet."

"It was a working class background. A one bedroom that I shared with my mum and my dad," she says looking back: it has also been referred to as a 'cupboard' within her parents' bedroom.

"We didn't have a bath or a shower in the house until I was about 12. I used to go down to the local swimming pool (to wash). I never thought there was anything strange. You know, when you are brought up with it.

"But it was tough," says the Scots superwoman who in 2001 Prince Charles invited onto the board of directors of The Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust and who was made an OBE in 2010.

"I didn't know any different. I was really loved by my mum and dad. They worked so hard. My brother died when I was 10. It was devastating, awful; really, really bad. Bad for my mum and dad. Children should never die before them.

"They had just to get on with it," she says. "He was born with Spina Bifida. He was my younger brother. He died when he was a baby.

"Then when I was 15, my dad woke up and he couldn't move his legs; he was paralysed. And we lived in a one-up tenement. So we had to find another house on the ground floor for the wheelchair. We moved literally across the road."

Did she in a sense use those hard knocks in her early life to give her the determination that she would do something with her life?

"I don't know where I got that from, but I was always determined to do something." Michelle, who says that she was different to other kids, started a business when she was 10.

"And when I was 12 I had 17 teenagers working for me - delivering the papers in the morning and in the evening. I was always interested in business. There was no business in my family," she says referring to the fact that her father Duncan worked in a factory that made ink for newspapers while her mother Isobel worked for a company that made sewing machines.

"She used to make all my outfits at weekends," she remembers.

"My mum also worked a second job in a fruit shop, then she worked as a home help for the council."

Michelle Georgina Allan got married at 19 to Michael Mone, whom she met two years before that. "He was from a very middle class (background)," she says.

Was she going up in the world? "No. Not at all. I just, I suppose, fell in love and that was it." Michael was "pretty much" her first boyfriend at 17.

"I had Rebecca, my first daughter, when I was 20. I was pregnant when I was 19," says Michelle who has three kids now, Rebecca, (23), Declan (19) and Bethany (16). Michelle's high-profile marriage to Michael ended in 2011.

"I was married for 20 years. I had two years of hell, pure hell, buying him out, getting new buyers, investors, for the company; refurbishing a new home for me and the kids." And now?

"But, you know, I am now the happiest I've ever been. I've moved to London."

Michelle also says she stayed in the marriage for 20 years "because you don't know any better. I got brought up that you were married once and that's it.

"Unfortunately, it didn't work out. It was two years of pure ..." she pauses. "I mean, people go through a lot more than what I went through. But I am talking about pure hell. Saving the company. Saving the jobs."

She started drinking, she says, "a lot. I don't think I was an alcoholic. I think my alcohol intake went through the roof. I wouldn't drink in the morning and I wouldn't drink in the day. It would be having one bottle of wine sitting there. That was 2012. It went on for two years." What was going through her mind during that period?

"Loneliness," Michelle says letting the word linger onomatopoeically.

"I had never been on my own," she adds. "I got married when I was 19. So I left my mum and dad's house that day to get married. I had never lived with anyone. I had never lived with my friends. So suddenly (when the marriage broke up) you're on your own. Suddenly, I was on my own again. I think that's what it was."

In her new autobiography My Fight To The Top, she writes about her marriage starting to "crumble, with our fighting at work spilling over into our home life. She writes about her marital problems candidly, saying how she "swallowed my pain and just got on with it - as I did so many times during my marriage".

"The stress of it all was unbearable," she writes in My Fight To The Top. "It would drive me to binge eat, taking me from a size 8 to a size 22 - and so fat that I could no longer squeeze into the underwear that had made me my fortune. I have now lost 8 and a half stone in total," Michelle says now. "I train every day." (Michelle, who is in her Nike sports gear, is actually going out for a run after our interview.) "I was addicted to food. It was a way out."

I ask does she feel that medicating herself with food was because of the troubles in her marriage.

"Yeah. Absolutely. I was so deeply unhappy. But I kept getting up every morning and putting a smile on and fighting the day. But the thing is," Michelle says of her marriage break-up and her recent turbulent past, "I have moved on from it now. I don't do any interviews about him now, because it is there and I am gone up there," she says explaining what she means with her hands.

"It has taken a lot of work to get up there, in terms of working with yourself. I had a coach from America and everything else helping me.

"When all this money starts coming to you and you have five sports cars in the driveway and you have a driver and a nanny and a gardener and a this and a that, you kind of lose the plot a little bit. And I did."

Losing the plot for Michelle manifested itself in her feeling that "nothing-was-ever-good-enough. Feeling guilty for being successful. A lot of mixed emotions. So I had to do work on all of that. Now. I believe you learn something every day. I would say now I know exactly who I am."

And who is that? "I would say I have been through the whole spoiled thing and diva and everything else; (now) I would say (I am) caring and want to give back. I mentor 105 people on their business etc. I have now sold 80% of Ultimo.

"That was my life. That was hard saying goodbye. I still help them out as a consultant now and again. Now I am on a complete new journey - in the next couple of weeks I'm being made a Lady in the House of Lords," she says referring to the ceremony which is on October 15.

In terms of going-for-it romantically, Michelle says she has "just started to be open to going on a date and stuff."

So, a quick-fire round of the men she's been linked with...

Cricketing legend Shane Warne?

"He is a great guy. We had a date and nothing more."

Former X Factor winner Shayne Ward?

"Oh no, no. He's just a friend. He came back to mine after my book launch. My kids were there."

Would she get married again? "If I met the right guy. I have said it for a few years that I wouldn't, but if I met the right guy, yes, I would."

What is Michelle's definition of The Right Guy?

"Someone that is caring and makes me laugh and I make him laugh. I don't need a guy really for anything. I am now more wealthy than I was back then."

Michelle was in New York last month giving a talk when a woman in the audience held her hand up and asked her a question: When was the moment that she knew she had made it? Michelle didn't have to think long about her answer. "I haven't made it yet," Michelle replied.

"I really do believe that," she tells me. "I don't feel I've made it yet. I feel that I've got something to do. And maybe it is the House of Lords. Maybe that is going to make me feel complete."

And with that, the First Lady of Lingerie is off on her run.

Belfast Telegraph

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