My divorce cost me my reputation
Heather Mills tells of how she's turned her life around after her split from Sir Paul McCartney and why skiing and her daughter make her feel like a winner again
A meeting with Heather Mills feels rather like being at the centre of a whirlwind as she chats virtually non-stop about a dizzying range of topics including her vegan food range and restaurants, prosthetic limbs - she has one after losing her left leg below the knee in an accident - and her astonishing skiing achievements.
Vivacious, warm, and funny - and, despite the publicist's warning that the "M" word McCartney must not be mentioned, she's even willing to recall the horrendous fall-out she suffered from her acrimonious divorce from ex-Beatle Paul.
The couple met in 1999 and married in 2002, and their marriage lasted four years until they separated and divorced in 2008. Before and during the legal battle, Mills' reputation was comprehensively trashed in the media and she was called, among other things, "a gold digger", a "witch" and a "liar".
In 2007, she broke down in tears on national TV, claiming she'd been driven "close to suicide" by the reported criticism.
Today Mills, 47, is determined to proclaim a positive outcome from those traumatic times - when, such was the negativity attached to her name that charities including animal rights group Peta, for whom she'd campaigned, reportedly dropped her.
"I'm not bitter about that time, what would be the point?" she says with a dismissive shrug, as she chats at the launch in Chester of her first VBites restaurant within a Holland & Barrett store. The company stocks her VBites range of vegan food.
"I was heartbroken that a lot of people being helped by the charities I supported suffered because I couldn't do the work for them I'd done before. But that level of personal abuse, which forced me to step back and retreat away from my public profile, allowed me to look at my life anew, find myself and new challenges and get more balance in my lifestyle. In a way, it turned out to be a gift."
Her undoubted gritty determination has helped her carve a new identity - far removed from the vilified ex-wife of a music legend - for herself and her daughter from their marriage, Beatrice, now 11.
The pair divide their time between England - so that Beatrice can spend time with her father (the couple share custody) - and Austria, where Mills can pursue her sporting career. Discovering her talent was one of the legacies of that break from charity campaigning, and she recently became the fastest disabled woman on skis. She is ranked 28th in world slalom by the International Paralympic Committee.
"My daughter and I have a wonderful life together," she says, smiling. "If I hadn't had her during those painful times maybe I would have jumped off a cliff, but I had to think of her. She's totally changed my life, is my priority, and a miracle because I had four miscarriages and two ectopic pregnancies and was told I would never be able to have children.
"She's such a special kid, really smart, and down-to-earth. Although she's privileged, she's never been spoilt - she works hard at school to earn her treats - and I keep her out of the limelight. She sees her dad a lot in England and when we're in Austria, she enjoys total freedom and can walk around unrecognised. I'm proud of the fact that I've never spoken badly about my daughter's father to her, or told the truth about my ex, so that she has a healthy image of her parents."
Their idyllic-sounding life - in a remote village in the mountains outside Salzburg - is a complete contrast to Mills' own troubled childhood in Tyne and Wear.
Her father, she claims, was violently abusive to his wife, Beatrice and her brother and sister, Fiona, 45, who now helps Mills run VBites. Their mother left home when Mills was nine years old.
"My parents were rubbish and I went through really unnecessary things with my brother and sister in our childhood. My aim is to teach my daughter to be empowered and confident and she is really strong. She's very proud of me and says 'you're my role model, you're who I want to be' which is an amazing feeling. We adore each other," says Mills, who still retains her Geordie lilt.
Toned, tanned and glamorous with her blonde pixie crop, Mills has plenty of willing suitors but says these days she's happiest embracing romance rather than marriage. "I'm very open to falling in love, but I'd never get married again. In my mind that's a legal document that causes a lot of hassle!" she says.
"A lot of my friends are not brave enough to get out of bad relationships because they don't want to be alone, but I'd rather be alone than lonely in a relationship." Her ideal man these days, she says, would simply be someone "who considers me an equal and doesn't feel threatened by my success". Her last relationship of six years, which ended two years ago, was with a DJ.
"Really, I'm looking for someone who could match me, but my friends who've known me forever say there's no such man on the planet," she jokes.
"In the past I've always gone for strong, powerful men, but often they're the most insecure people on the planet. Men think they want a strong woman with an opinion until they have one and then they don't want to hear their views or the truth. They want you in a gilded cage, tied to the kitchen sink and to perform as a trophy wife, but that's just not me."
Neither does she consider herself a celebrity, nor seek that lifestyle. Despite the fact she received a lump sum of £16.5m and assets of £7.8m (which included properties she'd owned before her marriage) in the divorce settlement, she says: "Money doesn't drive me at all. It's never been important to me. I gave 80% of the settlement to charity. I'm not extravagant and we live simply. When I'm skiing, we live in a camper van and that's where I'm happiest," she says.
Instead, she says, her motivation is to prove "having a disability needn't stop you doing anything". She took part in this year's series of The Jump, Channel 4's winter sports celebrity competition and has previously taken part in Dancing On Ice and US TV show Dancing With the Stars.
"Skiing makes me feel stable, fluid and weightless. That feeling's priceless when you have a prosthetic leg and have to think about every step you take, and frankly, it's a rare man that can give you the same thrill that going down a mountain at more than 100mph can," she laughs.
"When people say 'skiing is so dangerous - you're taking so many risks' I remind them I'd just returned from the war in Croatia and crossed a road in England when I lost my leg in an accident, so frankly I don't think you can worry about what might happen. Broken bones can always heal."
It's remarkably philosophical in view of her catastrophic accident in 1993, when 25-year-old Mills was crossing the road and was hit by a police motorcycle after returning from charity work in Croatia during the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Her leg was severed below the knee. Healing was achieved only after following a vegan diet which led Mills to become evangelistic about its benefits. She wrote a book about her charity work and the effect of her accident, "a roller-coaster ride of self-discovery", called Out On A Limb whose proceeds funded limb prosthetics in Croatia.
"During the period I was being attacked and lied about, almost daily, a close friend of mine said some very wise words. 'Monuments weren't built for the critics, they were built for the criticised. For anyone who fights to do the right thing, there's a price to pay and if you're a strong woman, men feel threatened by you so they put you down'," Mills reflects.
Whatever twists and turns her life takes, on or off the slopes, Mills believes she can cope. "I just go with the flow these days and feel truly happy and lucky. If I died tomorrow, I'd be content that I've already ticked every box of what I wanted to achieve. My aim now is to go to my grave knowing I used every aspect of myself, my body and my mind. It may mean I go out battered and bruised, but I'll feel like I lived my life."
Heather Mills is launching her VBites range of vegan food across the UK with Holland & Barrett. The range is in more than 500 stores. Visit hollandandbarrett.com