My life in a media maelstrom

When Rosie Millard wrote about her cash-flow 'hiccup', she unleashed a frenzy of articles about middle-class debt. But coming clean has paid off

Rosie Millard does not look like a woman on the breadline. Nor for that matter does she much resemble a property millionaire. And yet for the last three weeks, she has been variously portrayed as one or the other in the national press.

Rosie Millard does not look like a woman on the breadline. Nor for that matter does she much resemble a property millionaire. And yet for the last three weeks, she has been variously portrayed as one or the other in the national press.

The tale of Five Homes Millard and her £40,000 credit card black hole has turned the former BBC arts correspondent into the country's most famous debtor. The ITV current affairs show Tonight With Trevor McDonald has even signed her up to present a programme on debt, in which she will receive a financial makeover.

The idea of writing about the phenomenon of middle-class debt in her Sunday Times column came to Millard during a pre-cinema dinner with her husband, the BBC producer Pip Clothier. "We were having supper before going to see a film and I was laughing with my husband about the fact that we were having a slight cash-flow hiccup. I thought perhaps I should write a piece about this."

Little did she suspect the media frenzy she would unleash with her confession that her current account is frozen and her apparently "comfortably off" lifestyle is entirely funded by interest-free credit cards.

The Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard "revealed" that Millard and her husband are sitting on a vast property empire - actually she has been writing about it in The Sunday Times for years - comprising four London properties and, rather shockingly, an apartment in Paris near the Moulin Rouge.

Not to be outdone, The Guardian, The Times and The Independent's own Terence Blacker chipped in with their considered opinions on Rosie's debts.

There can hardly be a reader in the land who does not know that despite her financial problems, Millard still exercises her right to Stila make-up, The New Yorker and a decent haircut every eight weeks.

Why does she think her light-hearted feature stirred up such interest? "It's quite funny to see someone tripping up who is vaguely well known to the public in vaguely smart guise. Also, it's this confessional feature approach that we have now. Here was an individual writing about something that not many people have the stupidity to write about, because the British psyche is deeply nervous of debt."

She is unapologetic about the decision she and her husband took to mortgage themselves to the hilt and her lifestyle choices, influenced by a busy working life and a growing family - she had her fourth child last year.

"We're encouraged to be aspirational in makeover shows and the glossies. I think this is a good thing. I don't understand why only people with inherited money or stratospheric salaries can have a nice lifestyle. A very close friend of mine died last year of breast cancer at the age of 41. It informed my leaving of the BBC, because I thought 'I want to change what I'm doing with my life and see more of my children'. You're only here once and you're dead for a really long time. If you want to have a nice house and put some nice things in it, if it involves borrowing £10,000 here or there, I'm easy with that. If I don't pay it all off, then, as lots of people have said, I'll sell a house.

"In The New Yorker this week there is an advert for American Express talking about a debt counsellor. This is not a debt counsellor showing you how to get rid of your debt, but someone showing you how to increase your debt. Living with debt is a modern phenomenon."

She insists that she was not looking for sympathy - "I wasn't whingeing about it at all" - but has been taken aback by the ferocity of some of the e-mails she received. "I had people ringing me up and offering to lend me money. Then I had lots of hideous e-mails saying 'You are a nightmare', 'Why don't you shut up and stop whingeing'. One person said 'Why have you had your fourth child?'. I replied to all of them and I said 'You wouldn't say that if you saw the baby, he's a really sweet child.'"

Having reported on the arts for the BBC in a decade that saw the emergence of the Young British Artists, the launch of the National Lottery and the opening of Tate Modern, Millard left last year when the corporation introduced new rules preventing correspondents writing for newspapers.

She now combines the post of arts editor of the New Statesman with columns for The Sunday Times and The Times. Despite her day jobs, she will doubtless go down in media lore as the debt-stricken middle-class mum who nearly fell out of her Vivienne Westwood gown at the Oscars. "I think one informs the other. It's very easy to see someone tipping out of a Westwood dress as being a financial incompetent. It annoyed certain areas of the press when they found out about my 'staggering portfolio'. That is difficult to square with a woman in a dress with a pair of tits - one doesn't normally, in the rather blinkered view of certain outlets of the press, go along with another."

As someone who understands how the media works and who did after all invite the attention, Millard has greeted the fascination with her finances with equanimity - even when the Daily Mail, to whom she declined to give an interview, door-stepped her mother.

"I've always been borrowing money off my parents. I've been broke since I was about 14. So they thought it was hilarious. They are on the one hand media innocents and on the other hand they are pretty knowing doctors. They didn't have any truck with it. They wouldn't be flattered by the attention."

One person who has not been happy about the coverage is Millard's bank manager. "She is risk averse and was a bit alarmed. If you're not in the media you think that everything in the paper is gospel. You don't realise that half of it is invented."

With her cash-flow problems in the headlines, Millard was delighted to receive a cheque for £500 for a magazine article she had written months earlier. "I thought, 'Oh good I must post it instantly into my bank account.'

So I put it in an envelope and put it in the pram and went for a walk in the park with my children. I started chasing them and the cheque must have flown out of the pram. When I came to the post box it wasn't there. We hunted on our hands and knees, but we never found it."

Perhaps that financial makeover will come in useful after all.

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