Michelle Mone goes from model to boss back to model

The creator of the Ultimo bra will be fronting her own marketing campaign
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The Independent Online

From the Spice Girls to Katie Price, an almost endless line of women has espoused girl power, based apparently on wearing as few clothes as possible and amassing personal fortunes.

On Tuesday, a new woman will join their ranks, emerging not from a stage door, but from the boardroom.

Michelle Mone, founder and co-owner of MJM International, maker of the Ultimo bra and the biggest lingerie company in the UK, is risking the wrath and ridicule of her £2.8bn industry by making herself the model in her latest underwear marketing campaign. Fresh from the launch earlier this month of the "revolutionary" Icon – billed as the boob-job bra, which was two years in the making and cost six figures to develop – and fully recovered from her stint in the Arctic for the reality TV show 71 Degrees North, Mone is excited about her modelling comeback.

"I know it's a huge gamble. It could even destroy the company, I suppose, and maybe I'm just being selfish," says Mone, 38. "But I just had to do it. I felt a burning desire to be a real inspiration to real women."

The inspiration she hopes to engender is not – this time – the rags-to-riches tale of the girl who leaves school in the East End of Glasgow at 15 and 23 years later is the owner of a nine-brand company, valued recently by venture capitalists at £52m, which posted a £1m profit last year. No, it's her six-stone weight loss that she hopes will encourage women to take hold of their own lives.

"In the 10 years it took me to build up the company, I comfort ate my way to being more than 17 stone," she says. "Food had become an addiction. Like an alcoholic, I was hiding things to eat in secret, but when I wasn't eating, I felt so miserable, particularly when standing beside models like Mel B in photo shoots."

In two years, Mone has come back down to 11 stone thanks, she says, to working out and eating less, playing down the role of diet pills, to which she attributed to her weight loss earlier this year. "They did help to suppress my appetite – I used to feel so hungry all the time – but really it is about getting fit and taking back the power in your own life." She is also keen to deny red-top rumours of a gastric band. "If I can do it so can other women and I want them to see that. The older I get, the more convinced I am that I have been given my own skills and been forced to surmount huge obstacles so that I can help others do the same." She is forgetting for a moment that not many women have the opportunity to be put through a free fitness programme before and during a hike across the Arctic for a TV show.

Is being a role model her only motive though, given that she may well be laughed out of business and that she admits that her husband, Michael, who co-owns MJM, is less than happy with his wife showing her wares in public? She denies that she is in pursuit of headlines. "I have never wanted to be a celebrity. I was thrown into that side of it when we launched in Selfridges and Debenhams in 1999. Journalists just wanted someone to talk to about the range. I have never courted the attention.

"The personal challenge of 71 Degrees was just too big to turn down. I learnt more about myself in that month than I ever have before. I now no longer feel it's weak to cry, to show my emotions. I had never ever dreamed I could cry in public like that."

Press stories over the summer alleging relationships with the actor Shane Richie and the rugby player Gavin Henson, co-contestants on 71 Degrees, introduced Mone to the downside of celebrity. "That was just awful. We all became good friends on the show. I've always had more male friends than women – that's just the way I am. Michael was devastated and I'm sorry I put him through that." So, if she knows the risks of becoming a celebrity, why court it by front her own ad campaign?

"I am similar to Richard Branson – obviously not as successful, but in that I go with my inner feelings. I'm driven and have to try, even if it seems not to be the best thing to do. Sometimes it goes wrong, but at others it turns out to be the right thing. I've always taken risks. This is just one more."

She sees the risk-taking as part of the creative package that has allowed her to turn an idea back in 1994 for a comfortable, uplifting bra for the more endowed woman into a business that has concessions in 26 Debenham stores across the country, has partner lines with Debenham, Asda and Tesco, and supplies Next, House of Fraser, Grattan, Littlewoods, Figleaves and Asos.com. MJM has also expanded into womenswear with its Ultimo Couture line, taking on Brian Rennie, the former creative director of Escada and will, if Mone's plans pan out, be opening a chain of high street lifestyle shops by 2013. And it also allows her to override her husband's misgivings about the lingerie shoot.

"Michael was a stockbroker when I met him." She was 18 years old and modelling on his stand at a money show. "He is the steady, stable one, and that's what makes us so good together in business," she says. "He runs the logistics and manufacturing side and I am the creative and marketing end. I could never organise the suppliers so that each of the 24 components that make up one bra arrive in a factory in China at exactly the right time, but Michael can. We need each other to be successful."

The couple bought out former shareholders Sir Tom Hunter and Ian Grabiner, the chief executive of Arcadia, in a deal thought to be worth £800,000 two years ago, and so have a strong grasp on the company, one that Mone has no plans to relinquish.

"We are a cash-rich company so have no need of any further investors. But I am looking for partners who can help us expand," she says. "I know nothing at all about retail, and if we are to create a high-street chain we will need that expertise.

"We are in talks with three major companies about manufacturing beauty products, because our shops will only carry lines unique to us, not just bottles taken off the shelf with our label stuck on it. We need something that will fit into our brand of providing miracles for women."