All she needs is love

It reads like a Catherine Cookson novel: the northern girl who flees an abusive father, sleeps rough and loses a leg, blossoms into a model and Nobel nominee. Now Heather Mills has bagged herself a Beatle
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The Independent Online

It sounds like the synopsis of a particularly Zeitgeisty potboiler. A Geordie lass loses her mother, is driven from her home by an abusive father, lives rough in a pre-zero tolerance London, eventually becomes a model, and then moves to Yugoslavia to become a ski instructor, only to watch as the country is consumed by civil war.

By this point, even Shirley Conran might start to scoff at the ludicrousness of it all. But this most topical tale goes on: our heroine returns to the UK to found a refugee crisis centre, pinballing between Britain and the Balkans as the enterprise takes shape. Then, in 1993, she loses the lower half of a leg in an accident with a police motorcycle. This prompts her to devote her attentions to - you've guessed it - landmine victims. Then, six years on, it is confirmed that she and Paul McCartney are an item.

It's worth pausing to recap. Abuse, homelessness, the Balkans, refugees, landmines and the Beatles; a link to New Labour and Heather Mills's status as an embodiment of millennial Britain would be complete. That she has thus far escaped the fate that befell both Sophie Rees Jones and the late Jill Dando and avoided talk of the "New Diana" is miraculous.

That said, there is something altogether too earthy about Mills to qualify her for such saintly status. Last year, she posed nude for the Disabilities Trust calendar, displaying both a refreshingly non-waif-like physique and her prosthetic lower left leg. Pre-accident, she did a number of lingerie jobs. Yesterday, one could almost sense the tabloid glee at being able to introduce a new star while not having to fret about a diminished nipple count.

They could also depend on an intriguingly chequered romantic history. Mills has been engaged no less than four times. First, there was an Italian banker called Rafaelle Mincione, followed by a "media executive" named Marcus Stapleton. After that came a marriage to a player in the computer industry, and an engagement to a BBC director called Chris Terrill, cancelled mere days before the wedding. Her friends reportedly began to worry about a developed case of commitment-phobia.

Cynics point to a rather more straightforward explanation. "She's a real wannabe," says a friend of another one-time partner. "A real go-getter." Her fondness for the limelight seems to be borne of an understandable desire to avenge all the trauma of her early life. Her mother left the family home in Tyne and Wear when she was nine, eloping with an actor from the ITV soap Crossroads. In response, Mills turned delinquent, shoplifting, missing school, and drinking.

Her violent father was jailed when she was 13 - whereupon she left her two siblings, Shane and Fiona, and lived for a time with her mother in London. It didn't last: soon after her move south, she ended up sleeping rough in Waterloo, just as mass homelessness made its first appearance in the capital. A handful of fag-end shop jobs followed, but her wayward instincts remained: at some point in the mid-Eighties, she was found guilty of the theft of a sizeable amount of jewellery (she apparently managed to buy a moped with the proceeds), and put on probation.

Modelling appeared on her CV thanks to a boyfriend who surreptitiously entered her for a Mirror "Dream Girl" contest. She won, but UK agencies apparently weren't keen on her look; thus followed a period spent in the USA and Europe, and her creation of a modelling agency called ExSell Management, which she sold in 1989. Her website boasts of "an offer that was too big to refuse"; whatever, in 1990, she travelled to Slovenia, the now-independent enclave of what was once northern Yugoslavia, where she became a ski instructor.

It was at that point that charity work first entered the frame. Her own PR blurb claims that she travelled throughout the former Yugoslavia "negotiating with the military and government agencies for hospitalisation, housing and re-sheltering in the local communities". She flitted between the Balkans, the UK and Austria - but her work was momentarily put on hold by the accident she suffered in August 1993.

The precise circumstances are unclear, but Mills was involved in a collision with a police motorcycle. The injuries included a punctured lung, crushed ribs, multiple pelvis fractures and - most crucially - the loss of her left leg below the knee. Thus, thanks to her ease with what the charity world knows as "confrontational images", began her most high-profile work.

Mills has posed for countless pictures both with her prosthesis and without it (she is also quite happy calling her residual limb a "stump"). After the publication of an autobiography entitled Out On a Limb, she was recruited by the Italian cosmetics firm Pascal as the face of a range aimed at women in their late twenties and early thirties. The Benetton-esque publicity that arose from using an amputee was doubtless part of her appeal.

It would be easy to decry such work as superficial, were it not for the tireless zeal that she has applied to charity work. In 1994, she enlisted the help of Brixton Prison inmates in a scheme to send unwanted prosthetic limbs abroad - the scheme benefited an estimated 22,000 amputees. And in 1996, Mills was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of her work with the victims of landmines. There are those who'd have her marked down as yet another MAW (Model, Actress, Whatever), but the accolade turns such accusations to dust.

So, though her television work has been relatively bottom-drawer, and she's sure to be placed on the same picture spreads as Emma Noble, Tamara Beckwith et al, Heather Mills belongs in an altogether different universe. That she is now dating an ex-Beatle will only increase the gap.

She first met McCartney at The Mirror "Pride of Britain" awards in May last year. They quietly began a relationship that culminated in a recent Caribbean holiday and a telling double-date with Ringo Starr and his wife Barbara Bach. McCartney has since pleaded for their right to privacy, but for the next fortnight at least, his requests are likely to go unheeded.

Even at 57, there's little doubt that he's a trophy boyfriend - and Mills's celebrity-hunting reputation is in keeping with what is apparently his ideal "type". According to the Beatles' biography Shout!, he took great pleasure in the way that Linda McCartney would openly talk of what an honour it was to bear his children. Mills is equally likely to place him on a very rarefied pedestal.

The profile of her charity work, of course, will now skyrocket - and the Hollywood mini-series is probably already being scripted. There's only one problem: it will need a far more decorous title than Out On a Limb.