The 'real' Bridget Jones finds Latin love in Madrid (vvg)

Elizabeth Nash meets the woman whose face adorns a million books - and who hasn't been paid a penny
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CIGARETTES, put 10 in packet, leave 10 at home, borrow from everyone but didn't smoke before leaving home (vg); alcohol, don't count alcohol; calories, healthy breakfast bran flakes, natural yoghurt, juice and an apple (vvg); boyfriend, drop dead gorgeous Cuban fiance (jackpot).

Bridget Jones is about to conquer America. The adventures of the angst- ridden and single thirtysomething began as a column in the Independent and then became a book, which, to date, has sold a million copies in Britain alone. Her pending arrival in the US became headline news in Manhattan last week as the New York Post posed the question: "Who the devil is Bridget Jones?"

For those who read the column and bought the book, her essence was captured in a half-profile photograph that was first used to head Helen Fielding's weekly account of Bridget's doings. She was a young woman holding a fag in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, a dark lock dangling louchely against her jawbone.

Many readers assumed that she was Helen Fielding, but she was actually Susannah Lewis, a sparky Londoner whose looks inspired a man to write to the Independent asking: "Does Bridget Jones really look like her photo? If so, will she marry me?"

The life of Ms Lewis today is the stuff of Bridget's dreams. At the age of 35, she settled in Madrid where she runs a salsa bar, she works part- time for Hello! magazine and is about to marry a man 10 years her junior. And she has fame of a sort: in Madrid's expat circles, she is known as Bridget Jones.

She tells how she was working in the Independent's editorial office when the column started: "Charlie Leadbeater, the then features editor, came up with the idea of the column and said, 'We need a picture byline. Are you busy this lunchtime Susannah?' Nick Turpin, the photographer, and I went to this flash champagne bar in Canary Wharf and sat in the window. I even had to buy my own glass of wine. Charlie said, 'Don't worry, no one'll know it was you.' It was just a laugh, really."

Susannah found, however, moments when Bridget's fictional life came dangerously close to her own. "At one point I was involved in a terrible liaison and was thinking of going to Prague for the weekend, and Bridget was planning a visit to Prague ... which was very funny." For a while Susannah didn't like Bridget Jones: "She's a rather feeble, whingey woman, but if I'm strictly honest, maybe it just cuts too close to the bone. Perhaps that's what I'm really like, that paranoid. Especially in the office; that was very me."

In 1996 Ms Lewis cut loose to come to Madrid. "On a complete whim, I decided to come to see some friends for a weekend. And something clicked. I had a fantastic Bridget-style weekend and went back to start another job, but quit six weeks later and came for good."

She wanted to set up a business and take control of her life. An old flame, a Brit, living in Madrid was the immediate inspiration, although their romance ended months later. But the couple continued to work together, and she realised her ambition of hosting a salsa bar. "We had no money, but sold the idea to other bar owners. At first mostly expatriate Brits came. I sold myself as someone who could teach a Latin dance, but in their own language. My Spanish wasn't very good then."

It is convincing enough now, and her Mediterranean looks - Sephardic Jewish rather than Latin - were "extremely useful", she recognises. "You're selling Latin exoticism, you need to look the part. But being English as well is a great advantage in the way I treat people. Spaniards don't mind if you're a bit crazy."

She hauls on a cigarette and reels fast forward to tell me about her Cuban fiance, Vladimir, a bongo drummer whom she met three months ago. "I'm getting married next month. Vladimir came to Madrid with his group on tour in February and they were to stay till August. I dropped in to the club where they were playing. I'm 35, he's 25. He's gorgeous, I wish I had a picture to show you. I know it sounds terribly fashionable to have a Cuban boyfriend, but this really is love." She plans to be his promoter in Europe, to live six or eight months in Spain, two months in Cuba - she calls it "Cooba", like a Sixties Hampstead revolutionary - and two months on tour. "We know we're going to spend a lot of time apart."

Is she sore about having received no money for her photo? "Hmm. It was a bit miserable. The paper said it had no money. I asked for some rights when the book became successful. My mother is in touch with the publishers. Perhaps I should push for more. You've set me thinking."

Susannah works part-time at Hello! magazine, which is produced in Madrid. She wants to have a good time, become a successful music manager, be happy and have a family. Did she suffer from mid-thirties singleton panic? "Oh GOD yes. It's a terrible disease you've got to work at constantly to get over. The solution is to immerse yourself in work and not stop to think. It's the human condition, afflicting men just as much as women. But you can put it behind you."

Bridget would doubtless agree.