Michelle Mone: Life's starting to take shape
Lingerie tycoon Michelle Mone became a multi-millionaire making other women look better, but success took its toll as she sought solace in food and her marriage ended. Now, with new products to launch, she tells Constance Harris why she won’t waste time feeling sorry for herself any more
Trendy feminist lingo would say that I had a girl crush, but that is too flippant a phrase to describe the impact Michelle Mone made on me when I met her seven years ago. It was at the launch of Per Amore by Michelle Mone of Ultimo. The youthful Samantha Mumba was the collaboration's poster child and top photographer Barry McCall got the gig to shoot Miss Mumba as she had never been seen before, vamping it up on a hotel bed.
Michelle founded Ultimo lingerie and its reputation was built on her genius invention, the gel bra. She was about 24 when the business idea began to formulate as a result of yet another painful evening out wearing a bad bra, when she promised herself, “I'm going to invent a bra that is comfortable.”
It took her three years of research and self-education every step of the way. From studying the breast-surgery industry, she was inspired to place a kind of implant into a bra, and the gel bra was born. Ultimo's gel bra revolutionised lingerie design, as well as cleavage. Julia Roberts wore it to get the incredible bust that became the movie poster for Erin Brockovich and sealed Ultimo's place on lingerie rails worldwide.
East Glasgow-born, working-class girl done very good, tall, blonde, good-looking, voluptuous — there were many obvious things on the outside to admire about Michelle the first time we met. For me, it was her gritty, grafter nature. A straight-talker, honest and modest about her background, in 2005, she was just 33, Ultimo was worth £20m and she was tremendously excited about how far she had come.
She was an entrepreneur and a can-do merchant to her bones, with rocket fuel running through her veins. One just doesn't meet women like that — women who are so out there and unstoppable.
By the time Michelle shared with me the story about her first job being a paper round at the age of 10 and, a year later, being an 11-year-old with 17 kids working for her, I was sold on Michelle Mone Inc. When we met then, she was married to Michael, five years older than her, with three children — teenage and younger — living in a big, new house with a “normal home life”, even if she didn't seem at all normal.
On December 27 last, Michelle and Michael's lawyer announced their separation. It was mutual and amicable, Michelle tells me, during our second, recent meeting. “Unfortunately, I think the problem was us becoming business partners,” she explains.
“You forget each other, you take each other for granted, you don't date. It's all business, business, business. If I was still a housewife we would still be married. But I think, as well, it was me changing so much. Going from losing six and half stone, changing all of that, getting more confident ... I mean, you do change from when you were 17 (when she first started going out with Michael). I am now a woman. I’ve just turned 40. You start to look at your life and where you are going, what you are doing.
“There is no one on the other side,” she says. “No one that I left him for or him for me. Or,
at least, I don't think so. It was amicable. It is just the way things are. I left my mum and dad when I was 19 and I was married the next day. I have never been on my own.”
She has been offered big sums to talk about her marriage, her break-up, but she says she has assured Michael that she won't talk about him. “I wouldn't do that to him,” she says. “Or the kids.” Shortly after this interview, there were reports in the newspapers of a relationship between Michael and Samantha Bunn, one of Ultimo’s designers, whom Michelle apparently considered a friend.
When I look back on Michelle's career, all her best ideas are based on her needs, her necessity. When she needed money, she developed her newspaper round. When she needed a comfortable bra, she invented one. When she needed to lose weight, she found a new solution.
Back in 2005, Michelle had been enthusing about a slimming concept she was working on, with herself as the guinea pig. I now know that she was working with renowned herbalist Jan de Vries. Trim Secrets, as it became known, is a supplement, which, with a controlled diet and exercise, caused Michelle to shed six stone, going from dress size 22 to size 12. She was so thrilled, she bought into the business.
Following her weight loss, Michelle did a glamour campaign modelling her Ultimo collection “to bury the ghosts of the past”, and the weight and the feelings associated with it. She received negative criticism from the media for doing it, who loved to claim that Michael was mad, too.
Me, I totally understood Michelle's thrill at finally shedding that weight — emotional and physical — and wanting to show it off. I also felt she was putting it up to herself — putting it out there resoundingly publicly so she wouldn't dare put it back on. But why did she get so big in the first place?
While she was building Ultimo into a multimillion-pound business, Michelle hid food under her bed and in cupboards. Her weight gain and self-loathing as a result of it had affected her relationship and rendered her sex life non-existent, she told one interviewer. Michael would try to be supportive when she dieted and he would get frustrated when he'd find the stashes of Coke and Irn-Bru.
“I used to just hide,” Michelle says. “I never had any confidence, really, apart from talking about my business. Then Rachel Hunter (herself a former Ultimo model) said to me on the beach one day, ‘Why don't you lose the weight? You can do it. You're a pretty girl. You can show women that you can change your life around.’ I just love showing people this was me, the size of me there — down, quite sad and everything. No confidence. And now look at me.”
Along with Trim Secrets, Michelle has developed several other businesses, including lingerie contracts with huge fashion chains, a lucrative TV career appearing in reality shows such as The Apprentice, MasterChef and 71 Degrees North. She won an OBE in 2010 for her contribution to business.
She has 120,000 Twitter followers to whom she gives coaching advice and business insight. She loves coaching and motivating people to take action in their lives. She tours the world as a motivational speaker, standing up with luminaries such as former US president Bill Clinton.
This time around, Michelle and I meet to discuss her latest range, Michelle Innovations, an exclusive and excellent shapewear range that aims to solve all women's lingerie conundrums. I am especially taken by the difference between a bra that lifts and shapes sagging breasts, The Lift, from one that gives good cleavage, The One.
“The Lift prevents saggy boobs. Even for teenagers, I think this is a great bra to prevent their breasts from sagging. If you have just had kids or you have experienced weight loss, or whatever, they start to sag, The Lift bra is perfect for that. But not The One, which is perfect for giving shape,” she explains. “There is a surgeon in LA who is famous with all the celebrities and he said that this bra is incredible if you want an uplift.”
The range is also different because it goes from 32A to 38F — normally such lingerie stops at 36/38D — and all sizes are priced the same. It's very high quality at a great price.
Next month, Michelle's necessity is mothering yet another invention — a tanning product that doesn't smell like biscuits and will even aid the reduction of cellulite — Michelle believes that most fake tans make cellulite worse. She will follow that with her three other creams.
“I have been working with a scientist and two chemists for the last three years. One cream is called U Sculpt. U Boob Plus will increase your bust size over a period of 6-8 weeks,” she claims.” Then we've got U Sculpt Boob Minus. It will be a huge launch. I am looking forward to it after three long, hard years.”
What does she think of cosmetic surgery and procedures? “Years ago I said, ‘Oh never, never, never.’ But now, I think that if I feel I need a face lift, I will do it,” says Michelle.
“There are some rumours that I’ve had a gastric band fitted. So, for one journalist, I stripped to a bikini and I said, ‘Find the scars. Find them. Where are they?’” She recalls, laughing.” There's none. None whatsoever.”
But you must have stretch marks after that weight loss, I say. Michelle jumps up to lift up her top and unzips her jeans to show me her hips and belly. She has none. Her flesh is enviably perfect.
“I am a lot more content with being me than I have ever been before,” Michelle says.”I think it is sad when women don't accept themselves, don't you think? You waste so many years being down about yourself. You should just be happy with what you are where you are. And I have learnt that. If you are miserable — do something about it!”