Trudie Styler: The truth about Trudie

She's famous as an actor, a producer, an eco warrior, amother and, of course, as Mrs Sting. But who is the real Trudie Styler? Liz Hoggard finds out.

Trudie Styler has a bit of a diva reputation. As the trophy wife of Sting, she has homes in Tuscany, New York, Los Angeles, London and Wiltshire. Her close friends include Elton John, Bill Clinton and Madonna (she officially introduced Guy to Madonna). For Christmas 2003, Mohammed Al-Fayed even opened Harrods early so Trudie could do her Christmas shopping without being disturbed.

So who is this witty, self-deprecating woman in front of me, confessing she hates having her photograph taken? A woman who seems rather more comfortable talking about her working-class childhood in the West Midlands, than her multi-millionaire lifestyle?

It seems there are two Trudie Stylers. One is the party queen of Manhattan. The other has spent the last 30 years establishing herself as an actor and producer. Not that the two roles are mutually exclusive. It can't hurt to have friends in high places. When it looked like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels would go straight to video, Styler invited Tom Cruise to a screening; the film rights were snapped up within hours. And although her latest film, Alpha Male (which she acts in and produced), is a low-budget British movie, she's accompanied to the interview today by a publicist from uber-agency, Freud Communications.

Styler is aware of the irony. "When I'm in public doing the glamorous-wife-of-rock-star persona, I don't want to disappoint, but when I act I really like to leave all that behind." Because the great thing about Trudie the actress is she doesn't play diva roles. She's far more likely to be the dippy mother or the sexed-up neighbour than the leading lady.

She drew fantastic reviews as the vampish Irene in David Renwick's romantic comedy drama, Love Soup. In the Bafta-nominated film Me Without You, she stole the show as Anna Friel's suburban mother, with a predilection for valium and Walnut Whips. And in Alpha Male, she dons a dark wig to play the unmarried sister of Jennifer Ehle.

"The great thing about acting is you don't have to worry about yourself at all," Styler insists. "I tend to just get out of the way of me and let something come through." Directors are waking up to the fact Styler - always so immaculate in public - is happy to play the older woman with crow's feet and embarrassing acres of cleavage.

"Mind you, when Love Soup went out last year, I saw a few reviews that said, 'surprisingly good', so I was damned by faint praise," she laughs. "I think people are surprised because the Fourth Estate created me into Mrs Sting; you know, that whole package of turning up to events and looking kitted out on a red carpet. Though it is a bit easier now I'm in my early fifties."

We meet at the London studio of the photographer Fergus Greer. Our interview takes place in the garden as he sets up the shoot. There is a full-height mirror at one end of the garden to make it look more spacious and there is a very funny moment as Styler and I battle it out to avoid the chair looking straight at the mirror. "Do we really need to see our reflections?" she groans endearingly.

In fact, she looks great: reed-thin (after 12 hours of Ashtanga yoga a week) in a print wrap-dress. But she also looks real. This is a woman who has lived. Her blonde hair is unfussy. There are laughter lines around her eyes. Yes, she visits cosmetic-surgeon-to-the-stars Dr Sebagh for facial injections and Botox, but that's because she suffered scarring in a childhood accident (more anon), that literally reshaped her life.

Styler doesn't always get a great press. In interview she can come across as Lady Bountiful - holding court at her 18th-century terrace house in London, or the 17th-century manor house she and Sting own in Wiltshire (which inspired her book, Cooking from Lakehouse Organic Farm, and the range of organic oils and honeys she sells at Harrods). But meet her away from the aristo trappings, and you realise the thing she is most passionate about is film. She talks fluently about her favourite directors - from Tarantino to Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands; A Room for Romeo Brass).

Unusually in a shark-infested industry, her production company, Xingu Films, specialises in reading scripts by first-time writer-directors. She says she is a "lone fish, a little one", but enjoys the process of helping to bring a film to life. "I like being in the driving seat."

She discovered Alpha Male director, Dan Wilde (whose short film, Bookcruncher won him Best Director at the New York Independent Film Festival in 2002) when he worked as her receptionist for three years. "He wasn't a very good receptionist," she says dryly. "He was clearly distracted by something. When I got to the bottom of it, I said, 'Well maybe when you've posted the mail, you'd like to show me your script.'"

Alpha Male is a compelling take on grief and dysfunctional families. A father's death brings his children's world crashing down. At first you find it hard to care about any of these posh, privileged people, but gradually you're hooked. Styler is especially touching as older sister Brede, who tries to seduce her brother-in-law (Danny Huston), then manipulate her grief-stricken sister (Ehle) after his death.

The impressive thing is that Styler can access the mindset of an abandoned middle-aged wife or a needy single woman. In Love Soup she was heartbreakingly funny as Irene, who dresses up in miniskirts to annoy her unfaithful husband. "It's that thing of 'To hell with her! To hell with him! I hope you're looking at me... in my skirt with the dustbin man.'"

Styler deliberately chose a dark wig to play Brede because it washed the colour out of her face: "I've got very pale eyes so the contrast made her a little bit disturbing. And she has quite a groovy haircut because she tries very hard, but something's a little bit off. She hasn't quite got it."

As for the sibling rivalry... "Of course, what I've drawn from is that I'm one of three sisters - in the middle. Growing up together, the sibling rivalry was fairly classic. Especially because my two sisters were both taller than me, so they got the new clothes and I got the hand-me-downs. It was always a rich source of discussion in our house." One starts to understand where Styler's passion for Gucci and Alexander McQueen comes from.

She was born in 1955 in Birmingham. Her mother was a school dinner lady, her father worked in a packing factory. She grew up in a council house. Aged three, she was knocked over and dragged along by a bread van. The facial scarring was enough for her mother to sue the company and win compensation.

"My mum fought for me heroically. She was amazing because she had such foresight. She told the judge, 'My daughter might need her looks one day. She might have a job in front of the camera.'" Did it make her determined to be in the spotlight? "I think I became an actress because I didn't know who I was and I certainly didn't like the person I saw when I looked in the mirror."

She wanted to act from the age of 14 ("I was always a showoff"), and trained at Bristol Old Vic, before joining the RSC. Later she had solid TV roles in Poldark, The Bell and The Mayor of Casterbridge. But in 1982 everything changed, when she met Sting. He says he fell in love with her the instant they met. In his 2004 autobiography, Broken Music, he writes of their first meeting: "Her eyes are a pale, pale green and across her left cheek is a whitened strip of scar tissue that curls like the violent memory of an animal claw around the socket of her left eye. Strangely the scar in no way detracts from her beauty, because she looks to me like a kind of damaged angel."

The problem was, he was already married - to actress Frances Tomelty, who just happened to be Trudie's best friend (Sting and Frances lived next door to Trudie in Bayswater, west London, for several years before the two of them became lovers).

The affair was widely condemned - not least because it coincided with the break-up of The Police. As Sting writes, "There wouldn't follow a season in hell for everyone involved." Unsurprisingly, Styler's acting roles dried up (she was too notorious to cast), so she reinvented herself as a producer - first with Boys from Brazil, a documentary about Brazil's transvestite prostitutes, then Moving the Mountain, the award-winning documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Xingu Films, was born out of a trip to the Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon. One day, a group of local children were daring one another to swim across the river. Styler dived in, but the current proved too strong and she almost drowned. She told herself that if she reached the other side she would change her life.

She admits there are many projects she still can't get off the ground, but excitement is building about A Guide to Recognising Your Saints, which won two awards at this year's Sundance. Directed by Dito Montei (adapted from his autobiography), it's a 1980s coming-of-age story, starring Robert Downey Jnr as a former Calvin Klein model and lead singer with a punk-metal band. "Robert brought me the book and asked if I wanted to option it. It's a fantastic project but it's taken five years to bring to the screen."

Ten years ago I did a phone interview with Styler (around the Clive Owen film Greenfingers, which she produced) where she barked at me down the line from New York, interrupting the flow every few minutes to shout directions to a maid or one of her children. Today she seems far more relaxed. "I don't know how happy I was when I met Sting. I always had this difficulty of not really knowing who I was. But I'm happy now. I don't look back - it sounds a bit New Age and wanky, but I prefer to look forward. I know where I came from and I hope I don't take anything for granted."

She admits she is a control freak and "incredibly bossy". Sitting in the photographer's garden, I see very little sign of it. As the airplanes fly overhead to Heathrow, threatening to drown out our conversation, I wonder why two grown-up women can't be more assertive and ask to talk inside.

What she does have is real magnetism. Looking you direct in the eye, she'll say, "I'm interested in the things you felt, can you elaborate?" You can see why she had such an overwhelming effect on men.

She also asks some very acute questions about journalism. She's off to interview the rock singer Sheryl Crow for the American glossy Harper's Bazaar later in the week, but insists Sting is the real writer in the family. I tell her how much I enjoyed Broken Music, especially its evocation of life in the North-east in the 1950s.

"I know. When I read it I was completely fascinated. Obviously I know a lot of the story, but the level of detail about that era, I think he recreates it beautifully." Interestingly, the book stops just as Sting becomes mega-famous. "That was very important to him. As he says, 'All you need to do is look me up in articles in Vanity Fair and so on, and you'll get a great insight into who I am in my later years. But people don't know the early stuff.'"

Styler says she prefers to be the raconteur in the relationship. She is full of unexpected stories. "There was this man when I was growing up called Frankie who used to chase my sisters and I around with a hatchet. He was blessed with no roof to his mouth. My mother was the only one who could interpret everything that he said. She absolutely spoke his language," she says, recreating Frankie's guttural sounds. "Sting loves it when I tell that anecdote. I say to him, 'Why don't you write my early life?'"

Such a complex mythology has grown up around Sting, 54, and Trudie, 51, that it's hard to see them for what they really are - a middle-aged couple who have been together for 24 years (they married in 1992 with an over-the-top wedding where Trudie rode to the ceremony on a white horse). They have four children: Mickey, 21, Jake, 20, Coco, 15, and 10-year-old Giacomo (Sting also has two children, Joe and Kate, from his marriage to Tomelty).

Both insist they never take the relationship for granted. Sting calls Trudie his "cornerstone". "We have this thing that we're here to heal each other's wounds - hers as well as mine," he writes in Broken Music. "I'm his front," Styler says, "the noise around him, the ideas person, the person with the focus."

Try telling that to the tabloids who are salaciously obsessed by their love life. Part of the problem seems to be a sense of humour failure - from Sting's boast that they practise tantric sex for five hours at a time (the labourers in their Tuscan vineyard apparently call Styler "Cinque Ore": Five Hours) to Trudie's radio interview with "shock jock" Howard Stern, where she teasingly suggested that she and Sting indulge in wife-swapping, threesomes and drug-taking (later emphatically denied).

But then the super-rich are different. Styler has a habit of saying things like, "whatever cloth we're cut from, we're all the same", and you have to grit your teeth. But she talks movingly about trying not to spoil her children. When her daughter flew back from working with orphaned children abroad, she desperately wanted to upgrade her flight, but resisted. "I wrestle with those possibilities that come with being the kids of Sting and Trudie."

And she clearly has a conscience. Eco-warrior, champion of the rainforests, she is also an ambassador for Unicef. After visiting children living on the rubbish dumps in Ecuador, she pledged to raise a million in three years (in fact she persuaded Sting to do a concert and raised £900,000 in one night). There's no denying the reality gap, of course. Not everyone has butlers and gardeners. Earlier this year the couple's ex-chauffeur sold a mean-spirited story to the News of the World, painting a picture of a marriage stretched to the limit by Trudie's insecurity and extravagance. Perhaps the funniest thing was the revelation that, while both Sting and Trudie are obsessive about eating organic food (grown, they like to think, on their farm at Lake House), the staff are not quite so particular. Sometimes - shock horror - they serve Trudie normal salad from the supermarket and pretend it's organic.

It makes you feel oddly protective. Because actually Trudie seems a bloody nice woman. No doubt she can shout and strop - and shop for Britain. But she cares about getting British films made. And she is a powerful advocate for women. There is a poignant pause when I ask her if directors ever made her self-conscious about her scarring.

"It was a real problem when I was a young actress. I remember during the filming of Poldark, we went into the studio which was less flattering. The cameraman started whispering to the director," she shudders, "and I just started to feel so bad. He came over and said, 'Darling, have you been sleeping on your cheek? You've got lines on your cheek.' I could cry now. I said, 'No, no, they're scars, but you can shoot me on this side.' It's such a man's world. But you know," she adds, brightening, "as a producer, I always look for a cameraman who is a master of light, so the actresses I work with feel looked after. Even when they're required to be drenched in tears, they can still look beautiful and destroyed."

'Alpha Male' is released on Friday

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