HOWWE MET; HEATHER MILLS AND RICHARD BRANSON

The model Heather Mills, 27, was born in Newcastle. In 1993, she was involved in an accident with a police motorcyclist, and part of her left leg had to be amputated. Now modelling again, she lives with her partner in Chipping Norton and London. She has just published her autobiography. Richard Branson, 44, grew up in Surrey. In 1970, he founded the Virgin Group, which has expanded from the music business to include airlines and soft drinks. A record-breaking hot air balloonist, he lives with his second wife, Joan, and their two children, Holly and Sam, in Oxfordshire and London.

HEATHER MILLS: In 1993, three months after losing my leg following an accident with a police motorbike, I was asked to be one of the judges for the Miss UK competition. The other judges included Annabel Croft, John Fashanu - and Richard. Caroline Charles had loaned me a ballgown, which was difficult for me to walk in, because the skirt kept getting caught up in my crutches. I'd been in hospital for eight weeks; this was my first public appearance. Richard and I hit it off immediately. He owned the Storm Models agency, and I had had my own agency, so we started talking about model management.

When it was time for us to go to the ballroom, Richard just picked me up in his arms. He carried me along the corridor and down the steps. It took my breath away because he did it so naturally - as though it's the sort of thing he does all the time. What was left of my leg was horribly infected and bandaged up under my dress, but I felt safe in his arms. I knew he wasn't going to fall down the stairs or drop me.

When the competition results were announced, Richard and I both thought it had been fixed. My most vivid memory of the evening, apart from being in Richard's arms, was us both saying when the announcement was made, "Neither of us chose her."

After that, I phoned him quite a lot about projects I was involved in, and we kept bumping into each other at events. Richard's always been a hero, ever since 1973, when I heard "Tubular Bells", by Mike Oldfield, Virgin's first recording artist. Now that we're friends, everyone says to me, "Is Richard Branson really as laid back as everyone says he is?" I have to say I think he's incredible, because, like most people, I think, "How did this man get where he is?" He's not a fireball of energy, but he knows how to let people get on with things.

I recently did a BBC series about coping with stress, Chill Out With Heather, which has just finished. When it started, he was one of the first names I came up with to be interviewed. I wanted to know what stresses him out. We did the filming at his home in Oxfordshire - 10 miles from the house I bought last year. The crew were surprised at how small his house is. They thought it must have been the servants' quarters, but then they saw Richard, waving at us from one of the windows.

I'd been there last summer, to a Virgin Airlines air hostesses' party. Rich- ard had turned the field outside into a bucking bronco theme park with bungee jumping, dodgems, you name it. I was doing karaoke, and when someone told him: "That's Heather", he came to watch. He shares everything with the people who work for him. The Virgin staff aren't paid brilliantly, but there are a lot of perks.

For the BBC film, Richard brought a couple of tennis partners to play with us. One of them had had two heart by-passes, and the other - who he admits he loses to all the time - only has one arm. And then there was me. Richard was messing about and complaining of tennis elbow, so it wasn't a very good game. The point of the programme was to show how someone overcomes stress, but it was hopeless because Richard is relaxed about everything. Having got to know him over the last 18 months, I'd say that he's got the balance of his life right. He spends a lot of time with his family. I don't think he's a workaholic.

When the crew left, he asked me to stay for lunch , and I told him I wanted to open up a chain of sports restaurants in Britain. He said he couldn't believe I was telling him this, because that's what he was doing at his Megastore in New York. He told me: "Looking at you is like looking at a female reflection of myself."

I thought it was a real compliment, because I've always known I'd do something with my life. I had real family problems when I was younger, and when I was 15 I ran away to London - shoplifting and sleeping rough. But it gave me a fantastic sense of freedom. People in the streets were really friendly - I just knew it would work out for me. Richard would understand: I'm sure he's never thought that he'd fail at anything.

I've set up the Heather Mills Trust, to raise money for child amputee war victims worldwide. Now I'm involved with the 1998 Special Winter Olym- pics. I can't do it all by myself, so I've turned to Richard. If I'm going to win a gold medal skiing for Great Britain, I have to train with the best people and that involves travelling. I'm happy to ask him for sponsorship, because it's a high profile business arrangement where we'll both benefit.

Richard told me that he has real fire in his belly to go ballooning again, but from what he said - "Someone very close to me wouldn't be happy if I did it again" - I guess his family don't want him to do it. I know it's out of character for him, but I think it's probably one risk he won't take. "It's very hard," he told me, "but sometimes you have to say no." It's the only advice he's ever given me.

RICHARD BRANSON: At the Miss UK judging, Heather arrived on crutches, and her personality seemed to light up the room. It's not just that she's lovely to took at - it's something that comes from inside. We started talking and she told me that she'd lost her leg fairly recently in an accident and that it was very badly infected. She looked stunning; no one would have guessed that she was in a great deal of pain.

About 20 minutes after we met, I remembered having read something in the papers about a model and a police motorcyclist, and I realised who she was. I remember asking myself why it should be more impressive for a beautiful girl to lose her leg than for someone who wasn't beautiful. It's a difficult question to answer. Even after such a short time, Heather struck me as an incredible person. When we had to go down to the ballroom for the judging I just picked her up in my arms. I quite like sweeping women off their feet, but in Heather's case, I wanted to be very careful not to hurt her. She told me how to hold her so that I wouldn't press on to her bandaged leg. I'm used to being around disabled people; my friend Robert Wyatt, from Soft Machine, is in a wheelchair, so I have some experience of how to lift people. With Heather it wasn't a problem: being a model, she doesn't weigh much.

Not long after, Heather asked me for a couple of tickets to help her Croatia appeal. She's persistent, but not in a pushy way. I think we share the same attitude about things that are worth fighting for. She's one of the few people I'll always speak to if she phones - she's a great ideas person.

Heather's very businesslike. As a company, Virgin will definitely get involved with sponsorship for the Special Olympics in Japan. She spelled it all out to me. "If you help me, in return I'll do X, Y, Z for you." She's not just asking for herself. Heather's worked out a sensible business proposition to help us both. Her confidence is frightening; I've no doubt that she'll come back with a gold medal.

When Heather asked me to do an interview for her series, I said yes, because it was her. A lot of reporters don't even listen to what you have to say. Afterwards, I asked her to stay for lunch because I wanted to find out more about her. I had no idea of the things she's achieved. She's on an incredibly strict health diet, which she has to follow to help fight the infection in her leg. She's a disciplined lady.

When I was a child, Douglas Bader was a close family friend, and I sometimes used to steal his legs if he'd left them lying on the lawn. I suppose I must have been a really brattish little boy, but it was meant in good spirit. As an adult, I saw what a wonderful inspiration Douglas Bader has been to people with physical disability. I'm sure that in her own way, Heather will be a fantastic role model too.

She's very down to earth about her amputation. "It's only a leg, for God's sake," she says. I suppose that to some extent she has been lucky - not that luck is the right word - in that she lost her leg below the knee, which has made an enormous difference to what she is able to do. She's the first to say that there are many other people much worse off than her. Someone like Heather can afford to buy a fantastic cosmetic leg, but not all amputees can do that. The government standard artificial legs are nowhere near as good, and you couldn't do sports and model swimsuits in them as Heather does. She's lobbying to try and make cosmetic legs available for everyone; I'd back her all the way in that. One of our Virgin air hostesses has an artificial leg, but unless you knew, you'd never guess.

When Heather sent me a copy of her book, I was amazed to read about the things which have happened to her. I'd no idea about the shoplifting and sleeping rough. In a way, I understand her completely. She's got street savvy, which has made her a bloody good negotiator. Just after her accident, when reporters and photographers were camping out at the hospital, she called them together and told them to go back to their editors and ask how much they were going to pay. Most people would have farmed that part of the deal out to a manager or agent. Not Heather. She pulled it off by herself. I've never met anyone quite like her. I reckon that whatever happened to her, somehow she'd bounce right back. !

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